The National Security Council’s top official for the Middle East has been removed from his job following internal complaints about his management style, according to senior Trump administration officials.
The departure Thursday of retired Army colonel Derek Harvey, an influential voice on Iran, Syria and counterterrorism policy, came at the initiative of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has repeatedly clashed with him.
“He and McMaster had different visions for what the mission required,” said one of several officials who discussed internal White House decision-making on the condition of anonymity.
A statement issued by NSC spokesman Michael Anton said that McMaster “greatly appreciates Derek Harvey’s service to his country. . . . The administration is working with Colonel Harvey to identify positions in which his background and expertise can be best utilized.”
As senior director for the Middle East and special assistant to President Trump, Harvey supervised officials who specialized in various policy areas throughout the region, but much of his attention was focused on Iran, where he was a persistent advocate for a more hard-line policy. He has also been a key player in the administration’s ongoing review of the Iran nuclear deal.
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Michael Bell, NSC director for Persian Gulf affairs, has been named to take Harvey’s place temporarily until a permanent replacement is determined, officials said.
In a statement, Harvey described the decision to leave as his own, and said it came with “mixed emotions.” He said that the “criticality of the mission [and] the people I have worked with at the NSC and the White House make this a tough decision,” but that he was “leaving to take advantage of a new opportunity to continue serving our President and the United States of America in an important capacity.”
Despite widespread reports of clashes with McMaster, Harvey said that “H.R. and I have worked closely together to tackle some of our nation’s most difficult challenges. I value our friendship and deeply respect his visionary leadership. I look forward to working with H.R. in my future capacity,” he said, although he did not indicate what that job would be.
Harvey’s departure is the latest upheaval in a national security team that has been riven with disagreements and controversy. He arrived at the White House with Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was forced out barely three weeks into the job, after reportedly misleading the administration about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russia and lobbying activities.
McMaster, an active duty Army general, took the job after Trump’s next choice, Vice Adm. Robert Harward, turned it down. Since then, he has struggled to impose a national security policy process and decision-making structure amid powerful political voices in the White House.
In one of his first acts, McMaster orchestrated the removal of chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon from NSC membership. But an effort to remove Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Bannon and Harvey protege, as the NSC intelligence director failed when Bannon and others intervened with Trump.
Harvey’s combative management style and hard-line policy views had long been seen as a problem inside the NSC, according to several officials. Shortly after arriving, McMaster told his staff in an all-hands meeting that any of them should be able to approach him with ideas or suggestions. Several officials involved in Middle East and counterterrorism policy drafted a memo that outlined some alternatives to the policies that Harvey was championing in the fight against the Islamic State.
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As soon as Harvey learned of the memo, officials said, he attempted to dismiss the people who had drafted it — most of them detailed from other agencies — by sending them back to the Pentagon, State Department and CIA. It took a last-minute intervention by McMaster to stop the reassignments, several officials said.
Harvey also drew the ire of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Pentagon officials, who thought that he was trying to set policy rather than coordinate among the different departments and agencies. Some Iraqi officials complained to the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command that Harvey seemed to be telling them where to position their troops, an official said.
Ultimately, Harvey’s biggest handicap apparently was his poor relationship with his own staff.
The statement issued by Anton said that Harvey had “served his country bravely in the field and played a crucial role in the successful surge in Iraq.”
A protege of Gen. David Petraeus when Petraeus was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Harvey was credited for predicting the post-invasion insurgency there. He later joined the Defense Intelligence Agency as a civilian and served as the first director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at Centcom headquarters in Tampa.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane called Harvey “one of the finest intel analysts that I’ve ever encountered.” Keane told NBC News he was “befuddled as to why he is being removed.”