WASHINGTON -- As President Donald Trump appears to lurch from crisis to crisis on the world stage, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have quietly maneuvered to restrain an impulsive commander in chief, the latest sign of a national security team that is increasingly challenging the president.
Officials say the two senior Cabinet officers have delayed responding to requests for options on a wide range of policy goals, including leading the Iran nuclear deal, reacting to missile strikes into Saudi Arabia by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, pressuring longtime ally Pakistan by cutting U.S. military aid, and possible limited airstrikes on North Korea's nuclear infrastructure.
Trump is said to blame Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, bristling when his national security adviser has not presented the options he sought, or as quickly as he demanded them. That has given rise to multiple reports that McMaster could resign or be forced out in coming weeks, and added to the portrait of a White House in perpetual turmoil.
But when he walks into the Oval Office, McMaster is often caught in a carefully orchestrated manipulation by Mattis and Tillerson to slow the delivery of options they don't want the president to take, according to two current White House officials and one former official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"They are going to hide the ball from the president to keep him from doing stupid (stuff), there's no doubt about it," said another former official, a national security expert who served in the Trump administration transition who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Other members of Trump's national security team also have pushed back, increasingly in public, suggesting that some of the president's top advisers have decided to speak out rather than acquiesce to what they see as false claims or dangerous policies.
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At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Feb. 13, six of the president's security chiefs -- including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher Wray -- challenged or contradicted Trump's stated views on Russia's role in the 2016 election, the danger of Russian meddling in elections this fall, and whether a controversial Republican memo on surveillance was accurate.
Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and the Pentagon's Cyber Command, told Congress Feb. 27 last week he was concerned that the White House had not ordered retaliation against the Russian meddling, or given him new authority to block it in the future -- a barely veiled criticism of the president.
Russian President Vladimir "Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there's little price to pay and that therefore 'I can continue this activity,'" Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. "Clearly what we have done hasn't been enough."
Even McMaster has pushed back -- but then got bloodied for it.