Robert Harward turns down Donald Trump's offer of national security adviser post

Then US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (left), walking with Vice Admiral Robert Harward (centre) and Colonel Kelly Martin, vice commander of 6th Air Mobility Wing, after landing at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, on March 21, 2013.
Then US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (left), walking with Vice Admiral Robert Harward (centre) and Colonel Kelly Martin, vice commander of 6th Air Mobility Wing, after landing at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, on March 21, 2013.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Mr Robert Harward, the retired vice-admiral and former Navy SEAL who was President Donald Trump’s top choice to replace his ousted national security adviser, on Thursday (Feb 16) turned down the post in the latest setback for a White House already in turmoil.

“This job requires 24 hours a day, seven days a week focus and commitment to do it right,” Mr Harward said in a statement. “I currently could not make that commitment.”

He added that since retiring from a 40-year military career, he now had “the opportunity to address financial and family issues that would have been challenging in this position.”

Two senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the matter, confirmed that Mr Harward cited family and financial considerations in turning down the post.

But his decision reflected the continuing upheaval in Mr Trump’s White House, which was rocked this week by the resignation of Michael  Flynn, the national security adviser, quickly followed by the abrupt withdrawal of Mr Andrew Puzder, his nominee for secretary of labour.

White House officials had scrambled to head off the refusal, asserting as late as Thursday evening that Mr Harward, who is close to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, was still in the running to become Mr Trump’s national security adviser.

Current and former national security officials familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to comment, said Mr Harward had harboured strong reservations from the beginning about taking the post because of Mr Trump’s unpredictable style and the level of chaos that has engulfed his White House. Those were only underscored this week in the politically charged aftermath of Mr Flynn’s ouster, despite the attempts of Mr Trump’s inner circle to allay his concerns.

One person briefed on the discussions said that Mr Harward – who had been interviewing for a different administration post when he was tabbed for the NSC – had been startled by media accounts of Mr Trump telling deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, who was close to Mr Flynn, that she could stay in her post. It added to his concerns about working for a mercurial president.

Mr Trump suggested earlier Thursday that he had demanded Mr Flynn’s resignation on Monday partly because of enthusiasm about an unnamed person he had in mind to replace him. The president had known since last month that Mr Flynn had misrepresented conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States, before Mr Trump was inaugurated, about American sanctions on Moscow.

“I have somebody that I think will be outstanding for the position,” Mr Trump said at a news conference on Thursday. “And that also helps, I think, in the making of my decision.”

But by then Mr Harward, who is a top executive at Lockheed Martin, had decided he was not willing to take the post. He wrote to Mr Trump and Gen Mattis conveying his decision, two of the officials said.

Mr Trump’s National Security Council has become embroiled in political controversy. In an executive order last month – which Mr Trump later complained privately that he had not been fully briefed on – the president placed Mr Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist, on its principals committee, giving a political adviser a position of parity with the secretaries of state and defence, and with the national security adviser.

Two former national security officials who have worked closely with Mr Harward said he would have been unlikely to take the position without assurances from Mr Trump that he could run the NSC free of intervention by political advisers. They also spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak about the matter.

Mr Harward’s withdrawal from consideration prompted Mr David Petraeus, the former general and director of the CIA, to step up his lobbying for the national security adviser post, which he badly wants, according to officials familiar with the process.

Mr Petraeus was forced to resign from the CIA in 2012 after admitting that he had an extramarital affair. In 2015, he was sentenced to two years’ probation for providing classified information to the woman with whom he was having the affair and fined US$100,000.