A viral, disturbing New York Times article about a pro-Donald Trump plot against a member of his own administration left out the most important element of all: the role of shadowy operatives in the pro-Israel right wing — operatives from the very same insider “deep state” from which Trump constantly promised to save America.
First, the background:
The May 13 article — headlined “Activists and Ex-Spy Said to Have Plotted to Discredit Trump ‘Enemies’ in Government” — outlines a sting operation launched in 2017 against Gen. H.R. McMaster, then Trump’s national security advisor.
McMaster, brought in to bring discipline to a chaotic White House staff, was growing frustrated with the president. Over dinner at a Washington, DC, restaurant, McMaster reportedly labeled Trump “an idiot” with the intelligence of a “kindergartner.” One of those present, Safra Catz, CEO of the tech giant Oracle and a member of Trump’s transition team, called Trump’s counsel to complain about McMaster’s remarks.
According to the Times, a group of right-wing operatives then mounted a dirty-tricks campaign to provoke McMaster into repeating hostile remarks about Trump for a hidden camera. The aim of such footage was to force McMaster out — and to validate the president’s obsession, a popular MAGA meme, that a “deep state” composed of government insiders, Pentagon brass, and ultra-rich liberals was conspiring to block his project to “drain the swamp.”
At the heart of the reportedly failed scheme were at least two women hired to lure McMaster into a “honey trap.” Although McMaster is said to have resigned on his own, the effort was a tightly-run spy operation that the paper revealed utilized operatives from the self-styled journalistic entity Project Veritas, which has a long history of using hidden cameras and allegedly misleading editing techniques to highlight a range of liberal sins, from anti-conservative bias to low morals. Targets have included Planned Parenthood, the anti-poverty group ACORN, and CNN. (Notes the article, “Although several Project Veritas personnel were involved in the [McMaster] plot, it is unclear whether the group directed it.”) In reply to an inquiry from WhoWhatWhy, Project Veritas stated that the organization was not involved and had no information on the matter but did not respond to a particular question as to whether any of its personnel were involved.
The cast of characters was said to include Richard Seddon — a former British spy and longtime ally of Erik Prince, the mercenary and private-espionage-business billionaire. Prince is the brother of Trump’s education secretary, the Amway heiress Betsy DeVos. Reportedly, even before Trump was elected, a training camp had been established at Prince’s Wyoming ranch for various sting operations. (One such intrigue resulted in a Project Veritas video that embodied DeVos’s famous hostility to public education by purporting to show teachers union reps talking tough about bending the rules to protect their own.)
Those mentioned also include Barbara Ledeen, identified as a former GOP Senate Judiciary Committee staffer. To the newspaper, Ledeen admitted a minor role but disclaimed any greater knowledge. Per the story:
Who initially ordered the [anti-McMaster] operation is unclear. In an interview, Ms. Ledeen said “someone she trusted” contacted her to help with the plan. She said she could not remember who.
“Somebody who had his calendar conveyed to me that he goes to Tosca all the time,” she said of Mr. McMaster.
According to Ms. Ledeen, she passed the message to a man she believed to be a Project Veritas operative during a meeting at the University Club in Washington. Ms. Ledeen said she believed the man provided her with a fake name.
With the entrance of the name “Ledeen” into the story, the semi-farcical tale of the Trump administration’s internecine feuds takes on a darker hue — a connection the Times didn’t include.
What the news story failed to stress is the salient fact that Barbara Ledeen has for nearly 40 years been married to Michael Ledeen, a historian, campaign adviser, and freelance intelligence operative, who served as a consultant to the National Security Council and departments of State and Defense under Republican administrations. Michael Ledeen is an important propagandist for the neoconservative (or “neocon”) movement, a political ideology with emphasis on free-market capitalism and an avidly interventionist foreign policy, which includes a commitment to uncritically supporting Israel.
Michael Ledeen, who has surfaced as an intriguer in several political imbroglios, is only briefly mentioned by the Times — as co-author (with retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn) of the 2016 book The Field of Fight.
The newspaper neglects to include the context-setting subtitle: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, and does not elaborate on the subject of the book: It is a blueprint for the Trump campaign’s call for a more aggressive stance against Muslim enemies worldwide.
The Ledeens have collaborated closely with Flynn since President Barack Obama fired him as chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency. According to former Obama aides, Trump ignored Obama’s advice not to hire Flynn for reasons of temperament and management style, and brought him in as the president’s national security adviser. All of this bloomed into the plot against Flynn’s successor, McMaster.
It is impossible to understand the motivations and worldview behind the effort to push out McMaster without studying Michael Ledeen in depth. For Ledeen is a longtime public nemesis of McMaster personally and an opponent of a more nuanced approach to the Middle East. His personal history is a case study in how private citizens, acting largely under the radar of media attention, have aggressively shaped policies that touch on some of the biggest calamities of the past few decades.
Ledeen got his start in journalism as Rome correspondent for the New Republic under then-editor Martin Peretz, an advocate of staunch support for Israel. According to a 1987 Washington Report piece titled “Michael Ledeen: Man of Mystery,” he was the founding director of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a pro-Israeli think tank formed in 1976, which has since specialized in flying retired high-ranking US generals to Israel to be wined and dined by Likud policy makers.
Members of the institute’s board included Dick Cheney, John Bolton, and Douglas Feith, who later became leading architects of the Iraq War under President George W. Bush. (Feith served as undersecretary of defense from 2001 to 2005.) Incidentally, it was Bolton, the adamant neocon who has called for war against Iran, who served as Trump’s surprise pick to replace McMaster as national security advisor. When, in 2019, Bolton was abruptly fired by Trump via a tweet, Ledeen criticized the president as not being sufficiently interested in toppling Iran’s Islamic regime.
The shuffling of national security advisers was emblematic of a faction fight that saw the White House’s so-called America First wing, identified with Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, pushed aside in favor of neocons seeking to expand the Pentagon’s global reach. (Any divergence in the two factions is notably absent over Israel, with both sides strongly supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the “settler movement.”) Given his association with Flynn, considered a strong “America Firster,” and his neocon bonafides, Ledeen bridged both camps.
Ledeen developed close ties to the Israeli Likud Party and was a fierce critic of President Jimmy Carter’s accomodationist approach to the Arab and Muslim world. He served as a conduit for stories that Carter’s late brother Billy had been bribed by agents of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. A Wall Street Journal investigation suggested that a series of Ledeen’s articles for the New Republic about Carter’s brother were part of a larger disinformation campaign intended to influence the outcome of the 1980 presidential election.
Following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, Ledeen served as a go-between for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, led by Wiliam Casey, and Israeli intelligence agents and arms dealers working to thwart Carter’s attempts to free American hostages (and gain reelection) by cutting separate deals with Iran’s new rulers.
Once Reagan took office and named Casey as his CIA director, Ledeen helped broker arms sales to Iran, now America’s sworn enemy, via Israel and Saudi Arabia. Funds from this operation were funnelled to illegal military support of counter-revolutionaries fighting against the government of Nicaragua. This “Iran-Contra scandal” led to endless hearings, trials, convictions, resignations, presidential pardons, and the suicides of several key participants. But Ledeen emerged unscathed, thanks in part to his friendship with special counsel Lawrence Barcella, who led a congressional inquiry into the affair. (Barcella left government service shortly thereafter.)
Ledeen has never been shy about his approach to foreign policy, writing in 2002: “One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today.” (The inflammatory statement has been taken down by the National Review, where it was originally published,)
Just Getting Started
As a promoter of the neoconservative and emphatically pro-Israel Project for a New American Century, Ledeen was an avid supporter of the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq and attended meetings in Italy associated with what came to be known as the “Niger yellowcake” saga, where falsified evidence, including forged documents, was used to paint Iraq as possessing “weapons of mass destruction.”
(For more on the Trump regime’s deep roots in the deepest part of the swamp, see our previous coverage of the Iran-Contra Affair, Part 1 and Part 2.)
VIDEO: George W. Bush 16 Words Lie: Iraq and Uranium Yellowcake from Niger
At the time of the 2017 plot against McMaster, Ledeen was quoted in an article in the right wing publication Breitbart, headlined “Exclusive — Zionist Organization of America Analysis Determines McMaster Hostile to Trump, Calls for Reassignment.” One summary point, labeled “McMaster Opposes Calling Out Radical Islamist Terrorism,” quotes a blog post by Ledeen accusing McMaster of seeking to reduce friction with the Islamic world by watering down critiques.
Throughout Ledeen’s career, much of his focus has been on support for Israel and striking at its enemies. He shared this focus with some of Trump’s biggest backers, including the late casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, like many in the Trump camp, was a big supporter of Netanyahu and of the settler movement that displaced Palestinians from their homes — a major cause of the current fighting in Israel and Gaza. (Trump was outspokenly supportive of everything Netanyahu did and, notably, moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, thereby stoking tensions considerably.)
There’s a long history of high US officials who are otherwise considered very sympathetic to Israel being criticized as insufficiently steadfast by far-right neocons. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton came under criticism for not offering unqualified support of Netanyahu’s self-described “defensive” settlement policies. Even President Joe Biden, an outspokenly pro-Israel politician throughout his career, has been faulted for not fully backing Israel’s settler policies.
The Ledeen family has been prominent in these efforts. In 2015, at the behest of Flynn — relaying a request from Trump — Barbara Ledeen, while working for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) on the Senate Judiciary Committee, attempted to launch her own investigation into Hillary Clinton’s notorious emails. Although Grassley’s office said it did not authorize her efforts and told her to cease and desist, her hunt continued.
Even the Ledeens’ daughter, Simone Ledeen, shows up in this policy area, chosen by the Trump administration to oversee Middle East policy at the Pentagon, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
Barbara Ledeen was tight-lipped with the Times but her animus toward H.R. McMaster is well documented. Multiple times she took to Facebook to post negative articles and comment disparagingly about the general. She also wrote, “We owe a lot to Erik Prince.”
Although Barbara Ledeen admitted to the Times that she provided information on McMaster to people she believed were associated with Project Veritas, she also declared, as noted above, “I am not part of a plot.” Yet, with broader contours emerging, it’s hard not to see it very much as a plot. And, as the saying goes, the plot thickens.
The ascendancy of Donald Trump and a group of hard-line Israel supporters emboldened and enabled Netanyahu’s harsh anti-Palestinian policies — the dire consequences of which are now playing out on the global stage.
After publication, we received another email message from the Chief Legal Officer of Project Veritas. The message asserted that Project Veritas “played no part in any attempted investigation of H.R. McMaster and as such have no knowledge as to who participated in the investigation in any way or whether there even was such an investigation, let alone how it was done, or, again, who was allegedly involved.”
Project Veritas in its emails did not address Barbara Ledeen’s statement that she had contact with a person presented to her as associated with the organization or our question as to whether anyone directly or indirectly associated with Project Veritas has had any contact with Barbara or Michael Ledeen regarding H.R. McMaster. The reference to “an attempted investigation” did not address our question as to whether anyone directly or indirectly associated with Project Veritas may have had knowledge or participation in a described attempt to capture General McMaster on hidden camera (i.e., for non-investigative purposes).
Barbara and Michael Ledeen and H.R. McMaster were contacted for comment but had not responded as of press time.
Russ Baker is Editor in Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.
Matt Harvey is an award winning journalist who lives in New York City.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from
U.S. Naval War College / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Cesar Garza / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).