President Donald Trump's new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, was investigated by the Army and admonished two years ago for mishandling a case involving two junior officers accused of sexual assault, military documents show.
McMaster violated Army regulations by permitting the two lieutenants to attend the service's elite Ranger School even though they were under criminal investigation, according to a report by the Army inspector general. The case against them was dropped months later after the Army determined the alleged victim was not a credible witness.
For his oversight of the case, McMaster received a light rebuke, known as a "memorandum of concern," from Gen. Daniel Allyn, the Army's vice chief of staff, in February 2015. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the documents from the Army under the Freedom of Information Act.
"I am disappointed with your actions," Allyn wrote in the memorandum, which was not included in McMaster's personnel file. "As a senior leader in the United States Army, you are expected and required to understand and comply with all laws and regulations."
McMaster declined an interview request. In a statement on his behalf, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said:
"Lt. Gen. McMaster has served alongside women, and benefited from their bravery and dedication, his entire career. As a commander he has been a leader in sexual assault prevention in each of his commands. To suggest otherwise is to unfairly impugn the character and integrity of a true American hero."
The case dates to 2013, when McMaster served as commanding general of Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Ranger School. At the time, the U.S. military leadership was under withering fire from Congress and the White House for failing to tackle an epidemic of sexual abuse in the ranks.
The case handled by McMaster concerned two second lieutenants who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in May 2013. Both had been athletes on the school's rugby team, which was temporarily disbanded that spring after players were caught circulating sexually degrading emails about women.
Investigators examining the rugby team's conduct interviewed a female cadet who said she had been groped on several occasions by two of the players, according to military documents. The matter was referred to criminal investigators and an Army prosecutor found there was probable cause to proceed with the case, the documents show.
The two lieutenants had previously been awarded coveted slots to attend Ranger School, the Army's grueling combat-leadership course held in the swamps, mountains and woods of rural Georgia. Under Army regulations, they should have been prohibited from enrolling because they had been flagged as the subjects of a law-enforcement action.
Unidentified congressional officials learned in 2014 that the former rugby players had been improperly allowed to go to Ranger School and asked the Army to investigate, which led to the inspector general's probe of McMaster, records show.
The inspector general concluded in December 2014 that McMaster had violated Army regulations.
Although McMaster said he had been aware of the criminal investigation, he told investigators that he did not want to interfere with the two lieutenants' military training or punish them prematurely.
Under Army regulations, the officers could have been properly cleared to attend Ranger School if they or McMaster had obtained a special waiver from the Army's deputy chief of staff at the Pentagon.
McMaster told investigators that he was unaware of the waiver requirement. The inspector concluded that there was no evidence McMaster had "knowingly" violated that regulation.
Like the officers, McMaster is a West Point alumnus and played on the rugby team. He graduated in 1984.
He later issued formal reprimands to the lieutenants accused of groping the female cadet. The lieutenants appealed their reprimands after they completed Ranger School in May 2014.
McMaster ultimately agreed to reverse his decision and dropped the matter after an Army investigating officer in a separate criminal case concluded that the lieutenants' accuser had given contradictory statements under oath, military documents show.
Brenda "Sue" Fulton, a member of the West Point Board of Visitors and one of the first women to graduate from the military academy, said the Army leadership's handling of the case was inexplicable.
"You just don't get to go to Ranger School if you're under investigation," she said. "You just don't get to go to Ranger School if you're flagged in a law enforcement case. Soldiers understand that."
An Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon declined to comment.
Trump named McMaster as his national security adviser on Feb. 20 after a brief, harried search to replace Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who was fired for giving false accounts about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to Washington.
McMaster was chosen shortly after another candidate, retired Navy Adm. Robert Harward, declined to take the job. McMaster is highly regarded within the Army for his strategic acumen and for his service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senate confirmation is not required to fill the national security adviser position. But as a three-star general who remains on active duty, McMaster still needs Senate approval to take a new assignment and retain his current rank.
'A profound betrayal'
The case began to unfold in April 2013, when West Point administrators were alerted to a long chain of offensive emails shared among the 60 members of the rugby team.
The emails, titled "Highs and Lows," chronicled the purported sexual exploits of the players, mocked their girlfriends and mothers, and made insulting references to female cadets.
Many of the messages contained a warning: "Remember. NO ONE SEES THIS OUTSIDE OF THE BROTHERS."
The emails surfaced as the U.S. military was consumed by several other sexual-misconduct scandals and under intense pressure from lawmakers to take the problem more seriously.
Pentagon surveys at the time estimated that 26,000 troops became victims of sexual abuse each year but that the vast majority were afraid to report it because they feared retaliation or did not trust their chain of command to protect them.
In chastened testimony on Capitol Hill in 2013, the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged systemic problems and apologized. Still, they successfully fought a bill, backed by a bipartisan Senate majority, that would have stripped commanders of their power to oversee sexual assault investigations and given that authority instead to uniformed prosecutors.
At West Point, the rugby team's emails were discovered a few weeks before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was scheduled to visit the school for commencement and deliver a major speech on sexual assault.
In his May 2013 graduation address, Hagel demanded that everyone in the military work together to stamp out the "scourge" of sexual harassment and assault, calling it "a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts."
West Point officials waited until a few days after Hagel left to reveal publicly that the rugby team had been under investigation.
The school announced that the squad had been temporarily disbanded and the entire roster disciplined, though all 15 seniors had been allowed to graduate. In a statement at the time, West Point officials said their investigation "did not find any evidence of sexual assault."
The disclosures immediately made national news. In Washington, skeptical lawmakers pressed John McHugh, then Army secretary, to review whether the case was handled properly. In June 2013, he ordered the Department of the Army Inspector General to conduct an independent investigation.
Within a few days, agents interviewed a female second lieutenant who had just graduated from West Point. Under questioning, she reported that she had been groped on multiple occasions by two members of the team who had been in her graduating class, according to the inspector general's investigative report.
The names of those players were redacted from the report. Both are now first lieutenants on active duty in the Army.
The two former rugby players were placed under criminal investigation by the Army in July 2013, records show. In early November 2013, an Army trial counsel determined that there was probable cause that both had committed "abusive sexual contact," according to the inspector general's report.
A month later, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command completed its probe and also established probable cause that the former rugby players had sexually assaulted their female classmate by groping her breasts, buttocks and inner thighs on several occasions.
At that point, McMaster had known for months that the two lieutenants had been under criminal investigation, according to the inspector general's report. Although Army regulations dictated that they were barred from receiving favorable assignments while the investigation was pending, McMaster allowed them to attend Ranger School starting in January 2014, the report shows.
McMaster later told Army investigators that he did not want to prejudge or punish the officers prematurely and that "he felt it was important for the officers to obtain the technical and tactical proficiency needed in their fields."
He told investigators that he was not persuaded that "the threshold of probable cause" had been reached, and that he wanted investigators to gather additional evidence, according to the inspector general's report.
Don Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders, a group that advocates for sexual assault victims in the military, said it was hard to understand McMaster's logic.
"He shouldn't be thinking, 'Well, I don't want to hurt their careers,'" said Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force and a retired colonel. "If you have two guys under investigation for sexual assault, but your first concern is that their career might be hurt, that says to me that you're not really getting the big picture."
The suit was dismissed by a federal judge last fall.
Around the same time that the two former rugby players reported to Ranger School, the case against them shifted.
In January 2014, an Army trial counsel recommended against prosecution, according to the inspector general's report. The report did not specify a reason.
As a result, McMaster decided to discipline the two lieutenants with official letters of reprimand. He signed the reprimands in February 2014 but did not deliver them until the junior officers completed the Ranger course two months later, records show.
They immediately filed appeals. In addition to categorically denying wrongdoing, according to the inspector general's report, they noted that their accuser had given inconsistent testimony in another sexual assault case.
As part of the rugby team investigation, the accuser had told Army investigators that she had also been raped by another West Point classmate, a member of the hockey team, while she was passed out in a hotel room.
The hockey player acknowledged having sex with her after they had gone to a bar and said it was consensual, though he told investigators that it was "possible" she had not been conscious the entire time.
The Army dropped charges against the hockey player after a preliminary hearing in which defense attorneys introduced evidence that the accuser had sent hundreds of text messages to the hockey player after they had sex, including two topless photos of herself. The evidence contradicted a sworn statement from the accuser that she had cut off all communications with the man.
Confronted about the texts on the witness stand, she said she did not remember sending them. But her testimony led an investigating officer for the Army to conclude that her "credibility is null," according to a memo of his findings in the rape investigation.
The outcome of that case prompted McMaster to withdraw and destroy the reprimands against the two former rugby players. In May 2014, he signed a final determination that "the alleged misconduct did not occur as reported," according to the inspector general's report.