KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Robert O'Brien, Trump's New National Security Adviser

Sep 18, 2019
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump has chosen a new national security adviser to replace John Bolton. Robert O'Brien will become the fourth person to hold that title in this White House. Unlike many of his predecessors, O'Brien's not a well-known public figure. But he has played a key role at the State Department working to release American hostages held overseas. To learn more about him, we have NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre here in the studio.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So O'Brien's been a hostage negotiator these last couple of years. How has he done in that job?

MYRE: Well, he's had success. He's helped win the release of Americans in Yemen and Turkey, for example. And this is a priority for the president. He makes a big deal when hostages are freed. He brings them into the Oval Office for photo opportunities and really plays it up. Now, O'Brien's most prominent case, however, was not a hostage case. It was with A$AP Rocky. That's the rapper who is on trial this summer in Sweden on an assault charge. O'Brien went there to monitor the trial, which drew some controversy as to why an American needed to be there for a legal case. But he just monitored. He observed. Rocky was found guilty then released based on time served, which was about a month.

SHAPIRO: We know that that case really caught President Trump's attention, but being national security adviser involves a lot more than hostage negotiations. What about his track record on broader national security issues?

MYRE: So he wrote a book in 2016 called "While America Slept." And he argues that President Obama was weak on national security? And he makes clear that he supports President Ronald Reagan's notion of peace through strength. And in December 2016, shortly before Trump took office, O'Brien gave an interview to Larry King. And he talked about the role of the national security adviser. Let's have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LARRY KING NOW")

ROBERT O'BRIEN: If I was going to be the new national security adviser - and I won't be. I'm glad it's General Flynn who's got that job and not me. But surveying the whole world, the most immediate threat is ISIS and Islamic terrorism.

MYRE: So clearly, he wasn't expecting to be in this role. But that was three years and three national security advisers ago, which is really in part of this unprecedented turnover on a national security team.

SHAPIRO: Flynn, of course, the first national security adviser caught up in the Russia scandal - the national security focus of this White House, of course, has kind of shifted to big powers, like, Russia, China, Iran. What does O'Brien say about how to deal with them as opposed to terrorism?

MYRE: Well, he's described as - President Trump as someone who could deal with all these countries and their leaders, including Russia specifically. Here's some more from that same interview in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LARRY KING NOW")

O'BRIEN: He's putting together a team of people that no one would claim would be panda huggers with China or that would be soft on Russia, so I think he's going to have a good team in place. And I don't see him capitulating in any way to Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping or the Iranian mullahs for that matter.

SHAPIRO: The Iranian mullahs - of course, the most pressing question right now is Iran. The president says it looks like Iran was responsible for the attack on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities over the weekend. The secretary of state is talking today with the Saudis about Iran. What role could O'Brien play in this situation?

MYRE: Well, to get a sense of how he might operate, I spoke with someone who knows him. He's Chris Costa. He was responsible for hostage issues on the National Security Council in the first year of the Trump presidency. And he thinks the job that O'Brien has had will be a - serve him well for his new position.

CHRIS COSTA: I absolutely think it is very good preparation that Ambassador O'Brien has been working with the National Security Council and the intelligence community and operating overseas. I think he'll be well-suited to serve the president in his future role.

MYRE: So O'Brien will be jumping straight into the fire. President Trump has been very hawkish on Iran. But to the contrary, he also wants to keep America out of conflicts in the Middle East. And so there's sort of two schools of thought. One - that this is an impossible job to sort of bring some order and process to this. The other - that it's an easy job because the president's going to do whatever he wants.

SHAPIRO: Regardless of any advice he might get.

MYRE: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Myre, thank you very much.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.