Fans of rhetorical superficialities, take note! President Donald Trump’s joint address to Congress Tuesday night is expected to bring back a long-running semantic debate over whether presidents should use the magic incantation “radical Islamic terrorism” in their speeches or not. It will also settle an internal White House argument over the matter, according to Politico’s Eliana Johnson, Michael Crowley and Shane Goldmacher, and prove which White House adviser truly has the “clout.”
In one corner, you have Trump’s new national security adviser, decorated war-fighter Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who disdains the term. In the other corner, you have a 31-year-old White House senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, who disdains Muslims in general. Who will win out in the end?
Well, this is American politics, where political hackery almost always trumps real-world experience, so ... spoiler alert:
President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”
But the phrase will be in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, according to a senior White House aide ― even though McMaster reviewed drafts and his staff pressed the president’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, not to use it.
McMaster’s stand on the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is noteworthy enough to have generated several media reports, soon after he was tapped to replace his hastily exiting predecessor Michael Flynn, about how McMaster disagreed with the Trump administration on this matter. As The New York Times’ Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt reported, McMaster made a point of noting in his first meeting with staff that “Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion,” thereby “rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.”
As Brookings senior fellow William McCants told the Times reporters, this view puts McMaster more in line with the Beltway national security community than the new administration:
“McMaster, like Obama, is someone who was in positions of leadership and thought the United States should not play into the jihadist propaganda that this is a religious war,” McCants said.
“There is a deep hunger for McMaster’s view in the interagency,” he added, referring to the process by which the State Department, Pentagon and other agencies funnel recommendations through the National Security Council. “The fact that he has made himself the champion of this view makes people realize they have an advocate to express dissenting opinions.”
Of course, in an administration that has openly expressed its antipathy toward Beltway careerists with a melodramatic hauteur, you probably don’t score too many points for being aligned with agency traditionalists.
Perhaps predictably, McMaster’s assertion did not necessarily lead to a good first impression. According to the Guardian’s read-out of that staff meeting, in which McMaster made it clear that he “does not wish to use the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’” those in attendance “were struck by the contrast between McMaster’s worldview and that of the president.”
Guardian reporter Spencer Ackerman went on to note that “McMaster discomfited White House staffers who view the terrorist threat in those religious terms” to such a degree that they “exchanged awkward looks with each other” during the confab.
McMaster’s point of view matches that of Trump’s two immediate predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who both eschewed the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Obama famously took some stick for doing so, and as Politico reported, McMaster is getting a taste of that as well: “McMaster’s appointment as national security adviser [amid] reports that he endorses the past rhetoric of Obama and Bush has already alarmed members of the self-proclaimed ‘counter-jihad’ community, which views Islam as an inherently violent religion.”
Still, the debate rages. According to Politico, McMaster is “in the process of asserting himself” in Trump’s inner circle and is pushing for changes. (According to a White House aide, McMaster believes that even using the term “radical Islamist terrorism” would constitute “an improvement.”) He faces immediate opposition from White House advisers who “fear any sudden change in [Trump’s] rhetoric could open him to charges that he’s abandoning his promise to speak plainly and openly to the American people.”
That said, Politico indicated that within the White House, both sides of this debate are open to a “gradual shift” in rhetoric over time. But that shift will apparently not occur soon enough to alter Trump’s speech on Tuesday night.
So, as usual, score one for the political hacks.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.