Editor’s Note: A copy of the NSA memo obtained by Foreign Policy, “POTUS & Political Warfare” may be viewed here.
The memo at the heart of the latest blowup at the National Security Council paints a dark picture of media, academics, the “deep state,” and other enemies allegedly working to subvert U.S. President Donald Trump, according to a copy of the document obtained by Foreign Policy.
The seven-page document, which eventually landed on the president’s desk, precipitated a crisis that led to the departure of several high-level NSC officials tied to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The author of the memo, Rich Higgins, who was in the strategic planning office at the NSC, was among those recently pushed out.
The full memo, dated May 2017, is titled “POTUS & Political Warfare.” It provides a sweeping, if at times conspiratorial, view of what it describes as a multi-pronged attack on the Trump White House.
Trump is being attacked, the memo says, because he represents “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative.” Those threatened by Trump include “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”
The memo is part of a broader political struggle inside the White House between current National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and alt-right operatives with a nationalist worldview who believe the Army general and his crew are subverting the president’s agenda.
Though not called out by name, McMaster was among those described in the document as working against Trump, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the memo and the events. Higgins, the author, is widely regarded as a Flynn loyalist who dislikes McMaster and his team.
“It was about H.R. McMaster,” the source said. “So, when he starts reading it, he knows it’s him and he fires [Higgins].”
The story of the memo’s strange journey to the Oval Office captures the zeitgeist of what has become the tragicomedy of the current White House: a son trying to please his father, an isolated general on a mission to find a leaker, a right-wing blogger with a window into the nation’s security apparatus, and a president whose closest confidante is a TV personality.
The result is an even wider rift between the president and his national security advisor, marking what may be the beginning of the end of the general’s tenure, and a radical shift of power on the NSC.
The controversy over the memo has its origins in a hunt for staffers believed to be providing information to right-wing blogger Mike Cernovich, who seemed to have uncanny insight into the inner workings of the NSC. Cernovich in the past few months has been conducting a wide-ranging campaign against the national security advisor.
“McMaster was just very, very obsessed with this, with Cernovich,” a senior administration official told FP. “He had become this incredible specter.”
In July, the memo was discovered in Higgins’s email during what two sources described to Foreign Policy as a “routine security” audit of NSC staffers’ communications. Another source, however, characterized it as a McCarthy-type leak investigation targeting staffers suspected of communicating with Cernovich.
Higgins, who had worked on the Trump campaign and transition before coming to the NSC, drafted the memo in late May and then circulated the memo to friends from the transition, a number of whom are now in the White House.
After the memo was discovered, McMaster’s deputy, Ricky Waddell, summoned Higgins, who was told he could resign — or be fired, and risk losing his security clearance, according to two sources.
Higgins, who agreed to resign, was escorted out of the building. He later learned from his colleagues still at the NSC that his association to this now-infamous memo was the reason he was removed.
Following Higgins’s departure, McMaster set out to clean house, a source close the White House said — getting rid of NSC staffers linked to the memo, perceived as loyal to his predecessor, Michael Flynn, or simply those with whom he’d butted heads over foreign policy. Among those fired was Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC’s top intelligence official, and Derek Harvey, who handled the NSC’s Middle East portfolio.
In the meantime, however, the memo had been working its way through the Trump White House. Among those who received the memo, according to two sources, was Donald Trump Jr.
Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources.
In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo’s author had been fired. Trump was “furious,” the senior administration official said. “He is still furious.”
The memo lays out what it described as a concerted campaign to undermine the president.
“The administration has been maneuvered into a constant back-pedal by relentless political warfare attacks structured to force him to assume a reactive posture that assures inadequate responses,” it reads. “The president can either drive or be driven by events; it’s time for him to drive them.”
The purpose of the memo, said a source familiar with the document, was to educate others in the White House about just what the president is allegedly up against.
“The memo maybe reads a little crazy, sure, but it’s not wrong and Rich isn’t crazy,” an administration official said.
Many inside the White House had only seen the first page or two of the memo — or had only read the excerpts published in the Atlantic, which first reported the existence of the memo, several sources said.
The memo’s repeated references to the Muslim Brotherhood — which is grouped among “key international players that includes the European Union and the United Nations — surprised few inside the NSC familiar with what been a Flynn obsession. “Oh look, it’s the newest member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” was a common joke among those critical of Flynn loyalists, and what they regarded as a conspiracy theory, a source close to the NSC said.
This 3,500-word memo was written in a personal capacity, according to a source familiar with its drafting. The source described it as a “technical assessment” of the current political situation, and said it was never disseminated from the NSC in any official manner, but shared with personal contacts from the Trump campaign.
“While opposition to President Trump manifests itself through political warfare memes centered on cultural Marxist narratives, this hardly means that opposition is limited to Marxists as conventionally understood,” the memo reads. “Having become the dominant cultural meme, some benefit from it while others are captured by it; including ‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”
“It’s not wrong per se,” said another official. “Actually, it’s not wrong at all. The not-wrong part is just, well, buried a bit I guess by some of the wackier parts.”
The memo calls out those pushing for rights “based on sex or ethnicity,” which is a “direct assault on the very idea of individual human rights and natural law around which the Constitution was framed.” It also says that “transgender acceptance” is “denying a person the right to declare the biological fact of one’s sex.”
Contacted by FP, Higgins declined to comment on the memo or his departure from the NSC.
The recent NSC shake-up appears to go beyond concerns about the memo. The recently ousted NSC staffers had been brought in by Flynn, who resigned for allegedly lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the substance of a December phone call he had with a Russian official.
Flynn is now under investigation for, among other things, failing to report income for lobbying on behalf of Turkey shortly before he became involved in the campaign.
The elimination of Higgins, Cohen-Watnick, and Harvey has helped McMaster assert control of the NSC, which was staffed during the early days of the administration by those loyal to Flynn and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.
Late last week, McMaster also planned to put at least four other NSC staffers on the chopping block, but was prevented from doing so by newly installed Chief of Staff John Kelly, according to two sources. All but one of those staffers had ties dating back to the campaign or transition.
A source close to McMaster denied those planned firings.
The White House press office did not respond to FP‘s request for comment. A NSC spokesman declined to comment, citing a policy against speaking about internal personnel issues.
Despite Higgins’s firing, McMaster’s difficulties inside the White House aren’t going away anytime soon — though he might.
McMaster “doesn’t really have any allies,” said a source familiar with the NSC staff. “It doesn’t seem as though he has the ear of the president, which is obviously essential to his survival.”