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Robert O’Brien Is the Anti-Bolton

The quiet successor to Trump’s fiery former national security advisor couldn’t be more different. And he wants to stay that way, aides say.

U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien walks onstage during the seventh summit between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok on Nov. 4, 2019.
U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien walks onstage during the seventh summit between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok on Nov. 4, 2019. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images

Explosive new allegations from John Bolton that could undercut U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense fueled fresh outrage from his former boss on Monday, demonstrating that the outspoken ex-national security advisor can still get under the president’s skin four months after leaving his post. 

The latest controversy throws into sharp relief the contrast between Bolton and his successor, Robert O’Brien, a former officer in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps and Los Angeles lawyer who quietly took the reins of the National Security Council (NSC) in September. While Bolton continues to drive headlines even from outside the White House, O’Brien is stolidly focused on implementing the president’s agenda without making news.

Since replacing Bolton in September, O’Brien has proved himself an enigmatic political operator who likes to remain behind the scenes and sees his primary role as coordinating policy rather than running it. He has been a loyal spokesman for the White House, defending the administration’s agenda during frequent TV appearances. 

“My job as the national security adviser is to distill and present to the president the views and options that come from the various departments and agencies,” wrote O’Brien, who most recently served as the State Department’s point man for hostage negotiations, in an October Washington Post op-ed.

But O’Brien’s low public profile and focus on internal matters—such as reforming the NSC and increasing the size of the U.S. Navy—have also raised questions about his role in crafting U.S. foreign policy and whether he is staffing the White House agency with loyalists who will rubber-stamp the president’s agenda. 

O’Brien’s proponents argue that he intends to follow the “honest broker” model for the job established by Brent Scowcroft, George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor. O’Brien has deliberately limited the NSC’s role to gathering options for the president and implementing, rather than directing, foreign policy. And, as a successful lawyer, he is experienced in both distilling large amounts of information and tailoring advice for the client’s needs.

“He is not trying to present himself as the formulator or the implementor of American foreign policy,” said Jim Talent, a former Republican senator from Missouri who worked with O’Brien on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

O’Brien’s associates point to his strong work ethic and modest demeanor, which have helped ingratiate him with former colleagues and his current boss. 

“Robert, I think, really distinguished himself as low ego, high energy,” said Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman who worked with O’Brien on Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. “He was never trying to go behind our backs. He’s very transparent. He’s incredibly ethical. He is a good, honest human being.” 

That description contrasts with Bolton, who reportedly unloaded on Trump’s foreign-policy decisions behind closed doors and tried to undercut the president’s agenda. 

Even so, some current and former U.S. officials decry O’Brien’s move to reduce the number of policy advisors at the NSC by more than a third. While O’Brien has said he will make the cuts primarily through attrition, two current and one former officials told Foreign Policy that the NSC is sending civilian and military experts detailed from other departments, such as Defense and State, back to their home bases early. 

The NSC is “gutted,” said one former Trump administration official, noting that the president has told O’Brien he wants a smaller agency filled with loyalists who will carry out his instructions.

“Bolton was viewed as very independent and having his own agenda not necessarily aligned with POTUS,” said the former official, referring to the president. “O’Brien was told he was going to be the opposite. He would carry out the instructions of POTUS and coordinate the interagency and not be a separate policymaking organization.”

O’Brien’s spokesman, John Ullyot, said the national security advisor has made clear he is working to streamline an NSC “that had become bloated under the previous administration,” noting that the agency is on track to meet its goals by the end of February.

“During the past five months, the NSC has been proud to support President Trump effectively as he has achieved numerous foreign-policy victories for the American people,” Ullyot said. 

But experts say cutting back the NSC could have a detrimental impact on policymaking. Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon official, noted that the NSC’s primary job of coordinating options within the agencies for the president is a complex process that requires a robust team of experts. It is possible that O’Brien intends to move policy development functions back to the other agencies—but with the bench of civilian experts at the State and Defense departments already depleted, it’s hard to see where that knowledge base will come from. 

She added that the various departments already struggle to speak with one voice on critical topics like Iran—and fewer staff will likely make that problem worse. 

“Both DOD and State have either been cutting or undermining their civilian policy staff over the last three years, and they are not in a great place to take on some of those functions,” she said. “If O’Brien hasn’t had those conversations … this may just be a political cover for staffing the NSC with [Trump] loyalists.” 

In addition to cutting back the NSC staff, O’Brien has made growing the Navy a key focus—one some observers say is puzzling. 

Growing the fleet to 355 ships is an issue where O’Brien and his boss already see eye to eye, those who know him say. Years before his most recent appointment, O’Brien passionately espoused the effort in op-eds for various outlets, as well as in a book. In an April 2017 essay for Politico, O’Brien and co-author Jerry Hendrix argued for rebuilding the United States’ seafaring service after years of atrophy under Obama in order to “deter America’s adversaries”—particularly an ever-more aggressive China—“and reassure her friends.”

 


355 Ships by 2034

Note: ship images are iconic, not representative or to scale. Source: U.S. Navy

 

“If there is an issue that Robert would personally take on as the national security advisor … if there is a personal issue that he would step out and advocate for, it’s a strong Navy,” Talent said. 

The push to grow the Navy is in line with the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS), rolled out by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in January 2018, which calls on the military to shift focus from the counterterrorism fights of the past few decades to future competition with near-peer adversaries like China and Russia.

“This is a core conviction for Robert that predates his time in this job, predates his time as [hostage envoy],” Gallagher said. “If you believe as I do that the primary task of the NDS is to deter China … then you need forward presence, you need to complicate their decision-making on a day-to-day basis.”

But even the Navy leadership has not fully supported the plan to significantly grow the fleet. The Navy’s top officer said in January that he would prefer to focus on making sure existing ships are properly outfitted, rather than building new ones. The Navy has struggled to tackle a crisis in readiness after two fatal collisions in 2017 that killed more than a dozen sailors were blamed on poor training and a ceaseless pace of operations.

Although Schulman noted that growing the Navy to 355 ships is now mandated by law—enacted in the 2018 defense policy bill—“it is a bit odd for that to be [O’Brien’s] focus when there are other things going on.”

One U.S. official noted that America’s massive shipbuilding industrial complex stands to gain billions of dollars from the initiative. When asked whether O’Brien has any ties to the shipbuilding industry, Ullyot vehemently denied it, saying, “None whatsoever.” 

Taking up the mantle of a bigger Navy is also strategic—it provides O’Brien an opportunity to prove his loyalty on an issue that resonates both with Trump’s core constituency and with the Republican national security establishment. It also allows him to focus internally while steering clear of thorny foreign-policy problems that could get him caught in the president’s crosshairs.

Ullyot denied that the national security advisor has any alternative agenda, noting that he believes Defense Secretary Mark Esper and acting Navy Secretary Tom Modly are on board with the effort to grow the Navy. 

“Ambassador O’Brien has zero agenda other than implementing the president’s agenda, and as the president has said, ‘Very soon, we are going to get to 355 beautiful ships,’” Ullyot said. 

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

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