Report

Trump Picks Low-Key Operative as National Security Advisor 

The choice of Robert O’Brien to replace John Bolton reinforces Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s power in the Trump administration. 

Robert O'Brien, the special envoy sent by U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives at the courthouse during the third day of the A$AP Rocky assault trial at the Stockholm city courthouse on Aug. 2.
Robert O'Brien, the special envoy sent by U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives at the courthouse during the third day of the A$AP Rocky assault trial at the Stockholm city courthouse on Aug. 2. Michael Campanella/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday named Robert O’Brien, his envoy for hostage affairs, to replace John Bolton as his fourth national security advisor, elevating a relatively unknown figure in a move that appears to solidify Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s role as the most influential foreign-policy figure within the administration.

With O’Brien’s scant government experience, his elevation all but ensures that Pompeo will have no major rival in the White House jockeying with him to influence Trump, according to former National Security Council officials and experts who spoke to Foreign Policy. Two and a half years into the Trump administration, Pompeo remains the sole foreign-policy advisor to have served in the administration since its beginning—first as CIA director, then as secretary of state.

Pompeo is known to be a hard-liner on most policy issues who has excelled by aligning himself closely with the president’s views. By understanding Trump’s instincts and how to speak on his behalf, Pompeo has established himself as Trump’s most influential advisor.

The untested O’Brien, whose most prominent role in government has been to serve as Trump’s chief hostage negotiator, enters the White House at a time of turbulence. Just days after Trump fired Bolton, a series of attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure roiled global markets and raised new fears of a confrontation with Iran. Nuclear talks with North Korea have stalled. And a damaging trade war with China shows no sign of ending.

The new national security advisor possesses a much lower profile than his three predecessors. Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, rose to prominence as an idiosyncratic critic of the U.S. intelligence community over the course of a storied military career. The second, H.R. McMaster, was considered one of the U.S. Army’s premier intellects. The third, Bolton, entered the White House following a decades-long career as a bureaucratic knife-fighter and political operative with well-defined, hawkish views often at odds with Trump’s.

O’Brien has no similar experience, and it is unclear whether he will bring any strongly held views to bear on the job. The most prominent line on O’Brien’s resume is as Trump’s special envoy for hostage affairs, a job he has held since May 2018. That position brought him to prominence over the summer, when he traveled to Sweden to observe the trial of the American rapper A$AP Rocky on assault charges.

“The experience and preferences of President Trump’s former national security advisors were liabilities,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former National Security Council official under President Barack Obama who is now a scholar the Center for a New American Security. “The president does not much care for national security process, has strong views in a narrow number of areas, and has a more personalized model of policy advice.”

A successful trial lawyer in Los Angeles, O’Brien served in several minor roles in the George W. Bush administration, including as an alternate U.S. representative to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005. He helped lead the State Department Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, which promoted rule of law efforts in that country. In 2011, he took a job advising Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He later served as a foreign-policy advisor to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s ill-fated presidential run in 2016.

That lack of profile may be an asset in the Trump administration. Trump has repeatedly chafed at advisors whose public personas have threatened to eclipse his. “He’s not a guy who’s ever going to run for president,” said James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

By not seeking to advance his own agenda, O’Brien may be able to more effectively mediate between the larger egos of Pompeo and his principal rival for influence, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. O’Brien, Carafano said, “doesn’t have a power base that competes with them.”

Unlike other senior roles in the government, including secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor does not require Senate confirmation, giving the president full authority to appoint whomever he likes to the position, regardless of rank or experience.

Trump praised his work helping free A$AP Rocky, but there is no evidence O’Brien did any substantive work freeing the rapper, who was released following a decision by Sweden’s independent judicial system. He was eventually convicted on the assault charges and sentenced to time served.

O’Brien “performed well in a way that caught Trump’s attention in the hostage job,” said a source familiar with the matter. He is “seen as pretty steady and a grown up in the room,” the source added.

O’Brien is “extremely disciplined” and “very low key,” preferring to remain behind the scenes, said a second person familiar with the pick. O’Brien has strong ties to the White House, including relationships with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and trade advisor Peter Navarro, the person added.

One thing O’Brien appears to have in common with other members of Trump’s inner circle is effusively praising the president to garner favor. “‘President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.’ Cheif [sic] Hostage Negotiator, USA!” Trump tweeted on April 26, appearing to quote O’Brien.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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