Before and after McChrystal's removal, a flurry of White House activity
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; 6:12 PM
After he spent more than 15 hours flying from his post on the other side of the world, it took less than 30 minutes Wednesday morning for Gen. Stanley McChrystal to find out what most in Washington assumed was coming: He was out.
The Oval Office meeting, alone with the president, was brief and to the point. They talked about the Rolling Stone article that effectively ended McChrystal's career, senior officials said, adding that President Obama was genuinely saddened, but resolute.
And then, with no fanfare, the general slipped out the side entrance of the West Wing, his motorcade captured by cameras.
The decision, which Obama described as one made with "considerable regret," began a flurry of activity designed to reassure allies and supporters that the war strategy in Afghanistan is working, and, as Obama said, that a change in leadership does not amount to a change in policy.
Immediately after meeting with McChrystal, Obama gathered in the Oval Office with his national security brain trust: Vice President Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, national security adviser James Jones, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
For 45 minutes, the group chewed over what to do next, and who should replace McChrystal. A senior administration official said that the group discussed Gen. David Petraeus, who was at that moment waiting in the West Wing, having been asked to arrive early for an afternoon meeting.
"The president believes that General Petraeus provides the greatest continuity," the senior official said, speaking on background to describe private events. "This is obviously somebody that is well known in the region, to the Afghans, to the Pakistanis, and to our coalition partners. So, again, there were -- there was strategic continuity."
The idea to name Petraeus had first come up on Tuesday afternoon, in a meeting between the president and Gates. Petraeus was discussed further Tuesday evening as the White House asked the Pentagon to draw up a list of names in case the president decided to fire McChrystal.
By the time the meeting with Gates and Mullen ended, Obama had made his decision. The aides left, and Petraeus entered. The two met privately for 40 minutes, during which time the president asked him to step down from his current post as the head of the Central Command in Florida and take on the new duties.
Petraeus agreed, but aides said it was clear to Obama that he was doing so "at some great personal sacrifice." Asked what the sacrifice was, one senior official said: "Tampa to Kabul."
From the Oval Office, both men walked to the Situation Room for what had originally been a regularly scheduled update on Afghanistan policy. It was anything but. Senior officials described the president's tone as "stern" and said he used the short 30-minute meeting to explain his decisions and lecture them about the future.
"He said to those in the room, we have to remember why we're doing this," one official said. "The president didn't want to see pettiness; that this was not about personalities or reputations. It's about our men and women in uniform and about serving the country."
The earlier group of advisers were there, joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Homeland Security adviser John Brennan, and other national security advisers, including two on video screens from Afghanistan and two on video screens from Pakistan.
At the meeting's conclusion, Obama went back to the Oval Office. As his aides frantically worked on his public remarks, Obama worked the phones. He placed a group call to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). He called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). And he called Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
In nearly 100-degree heat, Obama then walked into the Rose Garden, flanked by Gates, Mullen, Biden and Petraeus to announce his decision. Betraying nothing, the teleprompter was loaded with the Gettysburg Address, as usual, and switched only when he started speaking.
Top advisers said the decision was the culmination of less than two days of activity, which began when assistant press secretary Tommy Vietor received a PDF copy of the Rolling Stone article early Monday evening and began alerting top White House aides.
He copied the article and walked it to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, Emanuel, Jones, deputy national security advisers Tom Donilon and Ben Rhodes, and national security council chief of staff Denis McDonough.
Vietor "said you should be aware of this article. . . . He had a copy that he had sufficiently annotated," one senior official said.
The regular end-of-the-day wrap-up meeting quickly became a conversation about the article and its implications. By 8 p.m., when Gibbs walked the article over to the first floor of the residence to give it to Obama, senior aides in the White House already knew it was big.
Obama wanted to meet further, and headed to the Oval Office. McDonough, Gibbs, senior adviser David Axelrod and Rhodes assembled. Emanuel and Jones had already left the building, but quickly headed back.
"I do remember asking Tommy and Ben if anybody is disputing anything," one senior official recalled. By the end of the meeting, the question had already been raised: Can McChrystal survive this?
The ultimate answer would not be known for the next 40 hours. But even by the end of Tuesday -- before Obama had made his decision -- officials said the grave implications was clear to many in the West Wing.
"Many of us saw the very challenge that the president outlined today in how you retain a chain of command given this," one adviser said. "If you read the beginning of the article, you are left with great concern about how our allies will read this."