Unlike other one-time members of Donald Trump’s inner circle who have released books in recent weeks, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World is noticeably devoid of dirt about the president.
But that didn’t stop Stephen Colbert from trying to get it out of him when he appeared on The Late Show Monday night.
The host’s first attempt came after McMaster spoke out against Chinese President Xi Jinping, by saying, “If you’re a dictator and you put people around you who tell you how great you are and what you want to hear, and I think they’re telling him, ‘Hey, you’re on top, you’re doing great.’”
“That sounds like a terrible form of government to have one guy who says he’s the only one who has the answers and only surrounds himself with people who say exactly what he wants to hear,” Colbert replied with deep sarcasm. “Can you imagine having a government like that, sir?”
“Well, we fought a revolution because we didn’t want to live under a monarchy,” McMaster said, either willfully or ignorantly ignoring the obvious Trump analogy. “And I think we ought to still celebrate, Stephen, that we are not a monarchy.”
“We should,” Colbert replied, “but there are some people who think that wouldn’t be such a bad idea based on their behavior in Washington, D.C., right now, would you agree, general?”
McMaster laughed in response but again declined to call out his former boss directly, instead advising American voters to draw lessons from the Founding Fathers. “What I’m hoping for Stephen is that we restore our confidence in our form of government, in our democracy,” he said. “That we at least take a minute to be thankful that we do have a say in how we’re governed.”
Hitting what appeared to be a brick wall, Colbert took another tack, quoting directly from McMaster’s book in which he wrote, “Defense begins with exposing the Kremlin’s efforts to sow dissension within nations.” Noting that the president has called Russian interference in U.S. elections a “hoax,” he asked, “If you still believe that, is Trump undermining our defense by calling into question whether Russia is doing it?”
“Yeah, I think any leader who doesn’t acknowledge the nature of the threat is playing into their hands,” McMaster said, framing his criticism in a general sense while at the same time condemning Trump’s specific actions. “What I describe in Battlegrounds is how President Putin’s playbook combines disinformation with denial. We don’t want to help them with the denial part, so we have to pull the curtain back, lay it bare, and then make sure as well that we don’t tee them up for success with the divisions that we’re seeing in our society.”
What Russia wants to do, he continued, is “drag us down, polarize us and pit us against each other and reduce our confidence in who we are and in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.”
“So, I mean, my advice to any leader would be let’s not be our own worst enemy,” McMaster added. “Let’s not make it easy”
“Undermining our faith in our democracy would be doing things like saying ‘this will be a rigged election’ and ‘if I don’t win, the only way that will be is if it’s rigged’ and ‘we’ll never know who actually won,’” Colbert said, quoting President Trump directly. “Are those the sort of things the Russians might like to hear a president say?”
“Absolutely, they are,” McMaster replied. “Those are things we should all avoid saying, absolutely.”