In an interview with retired General Stanley McChrystal on Monday's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer grilled the former Afghanistan commander on his resignation following criticism of President Obama in a 2010 Rolling Stone article: "There were several demeaning quotes attributed to your staff members, even to you, about the President and about key members of his staff....Was he [Obama] furious about what had come out in that Rolling Stone magazine? Did he express displeasure with you?"
While McChrystal was supposedly on to promote his memoir, My Share of the Task, Lauer spent nearly the entire exchange harping on the two-year-old personal drama between the General and Obama: "Did you distrust the people at the White House? Did you distrust key members of the Obama administration when it came to their policy in dealing with Afghanistan?...Did you distrust the President and key members of the administration in terms of their handling of the war in Afghanistan?"
McChrystal avoided the questions and finally pushed back on Lauer's focus on the controversy:
It's interesting, in my book, I outline that in about a page and a half, of a 400-page book, because that's its level of importance. We were fighting a major war and in the scope of my career there was a lot of things in leadership I dealt with. And what I would say is most important is the positive things. And I don't think we need another book where we are finger pointing and criticizing.
Near the end of the segment, Lauer quoted Obama slamming McChrystal after accepting the General's resignation: "The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be met by – set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system." Lauer pressed: "Do you agree with that?"
At the time of McChrystal's resignation in June of 2010, the media uniformly praised Obama's "brilliant" decision to replace him.
In addition to going after McChrystal over the Rolling Stone article, Lauer began Monday's interview by wondering if the General thought former Senator Chuck Hagel was a good choice for defense secretary: "Chuck Hagel, is he qualified to be secretary of defense?...His outspoken stance against the war in Iraq, his comments about Israel and Israel's influence over Congress, those disqualifiers?" McChrystal replied: "I don't think so....I think that level of trust and relationship between those people, and with other members of the cabinet, are the most important."
In a report moments earlier, chief White House correspondent cited McChrystal as a reason for Obama nominating Hagel for the post:
Aides say the President is sticking by Hagel because of his desire to have a defense secretary who wore the uniform and who will be comfortable standing up to the generals. And debates with those generals over Afghanistan troop levels became quite contentious in 2010. In a new book, the President's former Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, noted what he called, "The emergence of an unfortunate deficit of trust between the White House and the Department of Defense."
Here is a full transcript of Lauer's January 7 interview with McChrystal:
MATT LAUER: Retired General Stanley McChrystal was the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan three years ago. He resigned after a controversial profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which he and his advisers were quoted making some disparaging comments about the President and key administration officials. Now General McChrystal is breaking his silence about that and some other things in his new memoir, it's called My Share of the Task. General, it's always good to see you, good morning. Nice to have you here.
STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Thanks, Matt.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: "My Share of the Task"; Gen. McChrystal Breaks His Silence in New Memoir]
LAUER: Chuck Hagel, is he qualified to be secretary of defense?
MCCHRYSTAL: Matt, let me start by hijacking the show and wishing my wife, Annie, a happy birthday.
LAUER: Smart move.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I know to avoid controversy.
LAUER: Exactly. How about Chuck Hagel? Should he be secretary of defense?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, if President Obama trusts him, I think Senator Hagel has the experience. He's certainly got the quality as a person. The real matter is whether the President has that level of trust.
LAUER: His outspoken stance against the war in Iraq, his comments about Israel and Israel's influence over Congress, those disqualifiers?
MCCHRYSTAL: I don't think so. I think what you're going to find is you have to predict the future. And they're going to face very complex problems, many of which we can't predict. And I think that level of trust and relationship between those people, and with other members of the cabinet, are the most important.
LAUER: Not to put you on the spot, is there another name that jumps out? Is there someone that you would have turned to immediately that you would vote for?
LAUER: Okay. Just figured I'd try it. Let's go to your memoir, okay? There's a point in the book where you – you have a quote, and you say that as you were dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, "There was an emergence of an unfortunate deficit of trust between the White House and the Department of Defense." Was that distrust a two-way street?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, my book, and I outline this in a fair amount of detail, is about leadership, because that's what I'm passionate about. What I've learned over years is building trust takes time. And it's the essential ingredient of ever solving difficult things, whether it's a marriage, whether it's educating kids, whether it's fighting a war. You have to build trust between people and organizations. And so that's something that I focused on.
LAUER: Did you distrust the people at the White House? Did you distrust key members of the Obama administration when it came to their policy in dealing with Afghanistan?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think what's most important is we spent a lot of time sharing information to try to build trust. Trust comes with time, trust comes with cooperation, trust comes with compromise. And I think that's what we worked through in that really detailed program.
LAUER: With all due respect, you didn't answer my question. Did you distrust the President and key members of the administration in terms of their handling of the war in Afghanistan?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I still believe that the most important thing we can do is build that trust. And over time, that's – that's essential-
LAUER: You're being a good soldier here. I want to take you back to the Rolling Stone magazine that led to your resignation from your post. There were several demeaning quotes attributed to your staff members, even to you, about the President and about key members of his staff. Was that article accurate? Was that the way you and your staff members felt about those people?
MCCHRYSTAL: It's interesting, in my book, I outline that in about a page and a half, of a 400-page book, because that's its level of importance. We were fighting a major war and in the scope of my career there was a lot of things in leadership I dealt with. And what I would say is most important is the positive things. And I don't think we need another book where we are finger pointing and criticizing.
LAUER: But were the quotes in that Rolling Stone article, that were attributed to your staff members and to you, accurate? Because otherwise, then you should be coming out against Rolling Stone magazine. Were they accurate?
MCCHRYSTAL: The most important thing is that's past. I accepted responsibility. I was in command. And the elegance in command is you're responsible for everything bad that happens and everything good, and I except that.
LAUER: Of the President, you talked – one of your staff members said this about your first meeting with him, where he said, "He didn't seem to be very engaged, the boss was pretty disappointed." On National Security Adviser Jim Jones, one staffer called him a clown. On the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, you were attributed as saying that, "He wanted to cover his flank for the history books because he opposed the counterinsurgency." True?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, as I outline in the book, what I really try to do is get into the big picture. And so, what I've tried to do is show the holistic relationship with people, and generally, it was very good.
LAUER: That last meeting you had with the President, when he accepted your resignation, did he demand it or did he simply accept it?
MCCHRYSTAL: I walked into the room with the resignation in my pocket, I offered the President my resignation, but I said I would do whatever was best for the mission.
LAUER: Well, was there a part of you that wanted him not to accept it? I mean, did you want to stay in the job?
MCCHRYSTAL: I wanted to stay in the job, but I wanted to do what was best for the mission. And I felt that whatever the President felt was best for the mission was what I needed to do. So I was happy to go with whatever decision he made.
LAUER: Let me be a fly on the wall. Was he furious about what had come out in that Rolling Stone magazine? Did he express displeasure with you?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think what is said between the President and I in the Oval Office really needs to be between us. But I would say it was very professional. We had a good relationship before that and I think we still have a good relationship.
LAUER: After he accepted your resignation, he said this in a public statement, "War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president. And as difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it's the right strategy for our national security. The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be met by – set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system." Do you agree with that?
MCCHRYSTAL: The President's statement that war is bigger than any single individual is absolutely correct. And so when I accepted responsibility, I felt it was important that I do what, as a commander, is best for the mission at that time. And I'm very comfortable with that.
LAUER: You said this, this is your quote, "The best leaders are genuine and they walk a fine line between self confidence and humility." When you graduated from West Point, you wondered if you would turn out to be the kind of military leader that you admired. Did you?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think you work on that every day. I think there are days when I did very well and there are days when I didn't. But the key is, on the days when you didn't, don't let that become the new standard. You have to push yourself back up to where you know you ought to be every single time.
LAUER: Any regrets?
MCCHRYSTAL: Not really.
LAUER: General Stanley McChrystal. General, it's nice to see you.
MCCHRYSTAL: Matt, thank you, I appreciate it.
LAUER: And again, the book is called My Share of the Task.