Drop Zone

Can This Navy SEAL Rescue Donald Trump’s White House?

Adm. Bob Harward fought the Taliban after 9/11, ran prisons in Afghanistan, and still jumps out of airplanes at age 60. But his toughest job may be the one that’s coming next.

02.15.17 3:50 AM ET

America’s likely next national security adviser, Navy SEAL Bob Harward, calls himself an “action man.” And he has the combat creds and larger-than-life personality to back it up, as well as the sometimes-combative personality that can turn an argument into the verbal equivalent of a commando raid.

He may need those combat skills in his next job. President Donald Trump’s leading choice to replace retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn will be walking into what’s being called a “circular firing squad” of competing factions and the ugly fallout of Flynn’s departure.

Members of Flynn’s team are fiercely defending him, saying he’s been forced out by a two-headed cabal of traditionalist Republicans, who saw him as an outsider, and former Trump campaign operatives like counselor to the president Steve Bannon, who saw him as a competitor for Trump’s ear. The narrative of Flynn supporters goes that these enemies were armed with classified leaks by Obama loyalists still serving in law enforcement or intelligence.

The White House version of events as per press secretary Sean Spicer’s Valentine’s Day remarks is that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about his pre-inauguration communications with the Russian ambassador—though they say Flynn also sinned by failing to remember exactly what those remarks were.

That’s left behind a White House and National Security Council staff reeling from the blow-by-blow that resulted in Flynn’s asked-for resignation and the shortest-ever tenure for a U.S. national security adviser. One White House staffer likened the scene on Tuesday to “Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach”—and that was before The New York Times broke the news that U.S. intelligence intercepted numerous calls between the Trump’s presidential campaign staff and Russian government officials.

Two White House officials say Harward is Trump’s leading choice to quell the storm and right the ship. He’s surely Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s leading choice—a change from the well-known enmity between Mattis and Flynn. Attempts to reach Harward via his LinkedIn profile went unanswered.

Harward retired as a three-star vice admiral, never having served as a two-star, because his “Sea Daddy” Mattis convinced the top brass to rush-order Harward’s promotion so he could serve as deputy at the Joint Forces Command. (Sea Daddy is a Navy term for career mentor.) Harward later served as Mattis’s deputy at Central Command in Tampa.

A former member of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, aka SEAL Team Six, 60-year-old Harward has traded parachuting into combat zones for jumping into galas on well-manicured golf courses to raise money for military charities. He’s usually the one in the military display team trailing the massive American flag—the most technically difficult part of such acrobatic air displays that celebrate special operators and encourage billionaires to write large checks to support their families.

The Newport, Rhode Island, native is also an ABC News contributor and a senior executive at Lockheed Martin, currently based in Abu Dhabi.

Harward joined SEAL Team Six in its early years and served as an assault team leader at DevGru, as the operators call it. “He was one of the toughest guys in the unit,” said a former DevGru commanding officer. “He’s very smart and he worked hard.”

“There was a certain cowboyish aspect to the SEALs then, and they ribbed him because he was a Naval Academy guy,” the officer said, but the young SEAL officer took it in stride.

Harward went on to work for Mattis during the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, and commanded troops there and later in Iraq.

In an interview with Rand Corp., the SEAL officer described how targeting a single Taliban leader who was suddenly on the move foreshadowed the night-after-night drumbeat of assaults on terrorist networks to come.

“We planned, designed, and executed that operation with one hour’s notice,” said Harward of a mission to capture of a key Taliban leader, Mullah Khairullah Kahirkhawa. “Once we heard he was moving, my guys went off and put together a plan in 30 minutes. And 30 minutes later, it was all over.”

That was one of 75 missions Harward’s 2,800-man special operations task force conducted in southern Afghanistan while he was there from October 2001 through April 2002.

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In a later tour in Afghanistan, he headed the detainee task force under the overall command of now-retired Gen. David Petraeus, with the goal of making sure there would be no more Abu Ghraib-style abuses, referring to the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers in 2003.

That puts him squarely in line with Mattis’s public comments eschewing the now-outlawed “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the Bush era such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

“There are no ‘black jail’ secret prisons,” Harward told reporters, describing how detainees are questioned for “actionable intelligence,” but also provided “humane care, custody, medical and dental facilities, on-site family visitation, vocational and educational training,” so they aren’t tempted to rejoin terrorist groups when they are released. According to The Wall Street Journal, Harward even once toyed with the idea of teaching yoga to Taliban detainees.

Harward later served as deputy commander at the military’s elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as a stint in George W. Bush’s National Security Council, and time at the multi-agency National Counterterrorism Center. So he’s seen part of how an NSC works, and he’s already well-versed in the post-9/11 “all hands on deck” process of coordinating different government agencies’ efforts to fight terrorism.

Others who’ve worked with him closely also describe him less charitably as a “bull in the china shop” who is not afraid to break things, be they entrenched systems, uncooperative people, or anyone who disagrees with him—a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. That temperament might suit Trump but also spell another rough ride for an NSC rocked by the departure of Flynn.

Harward had one unwelcome brush with the media, linked through email exchanges to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who rose to notoriety when she was cyber-stalked by Petraeus’s paramour and biographer, Paula Broadwell. Harward was never accused of anything untoward but suffered blowback by association as Kelley had written flattering emails to both Harward and his boss Mattis in her attempts to secure some sort of official social appointment at Central Command.

Harward knows Iran—the country Flynn and Trump recently “put on notice”—firsthand. Thanks to his dad’s Naval deployments, he graduated from Tehran American High School and speaks Farsi.

A charismatic storyteller who holds the attention of crowds at a bar or a ballroom, Harward was known as a “bit of lad” in his youth, with a “stubborn, independent streak,” said one close associate. One of Harward’s favorite stories is how his Navy officer father drove him to the U.S. Naval Academy for “plebe summer.”

Harward loves to describe with a laugh how his father drove up to the front gate, then walked the teenager up to the sentry and said, “Here he is. Now he’s your problem.”