2019-09-18 › Trump Names Robert O’Brien, a Hostage Negotiator, as National Security Adviser
LOS ANGELES — President Trump on Wednesday selected Robert C. O’Brien, the State Department’s chief hostage negotiator, to become his national security adviser, moving to reconstitute his foreign policy staff even as he faces rising tension with Iran.
In choosing Mr. O’Brien to
replace John R. Bolton, who left the White House last week, the president picked a Los Angeles lawyer who impressed him with his work to extricate Americans detained overseas. But it is not clear how different his advice will be, given that Mr. O’Brien previously worked for Mr. Bolton and has cited his hawkish views.
Mr. O’Brien takes over the national security portfolio at a time when the president faces a decision over how to respond to last weekend’s attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia that officials in Washington and the region have
blamed on the Tehran government. Mr. Trump announced Mr. O’Brien’s selection on Twitter shortly after saying he would also “substantially increase Sanctions” on Iran.
Mr. Trump, who is in California for a second day of campaign fund-raising, offered no elaboration on how sanctions could be increased, but the move may have been a way of offering a tough response to the attacks in Saudi Arabia without necessarily using military force. His statement came shortly after he retweeted a message defending his decision this summer to call off an airstrike on Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that “this was an Iranian attack” and called it “an act of war,” perhaps the most forceful American description of the episode. But he offered no hint of a military response and instead suggested that the United States would work to increase deterrence in the region to forestall another attack.
“That’s my mission here, is to work with our partners in the region,” he told reporters on his plane before landing in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to consult with the kingdom’s leadership. “We will be working with our European partners as well. We’re working to build out a coalition to develop a plan to deter them.”
The United States Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, and its new commander, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, have pushed to send additional troops to the region, American military officials said.
In meetings and in memos, the general has argued that the United States should view Iran as a great power or near-peer threat, in a similar manner that the Trump administration’s official national security strategy views China, Russia and North Korea.
Under that logic, the United States would not shift troops and military spending away from the Middle East and toward China, but would rather continue to include the Mideast region as a major threat area that should receive additional troops and dollars. The attack on the Saudi oil fields, the officials said, is being used to bolster Central Command’s push for more resources.
That kind of decision will be awaiting Mr. O’Brien once he transitions in as national security adviser, coordinating the various departments and agencies to provide guidance to the president. His selection bolsters the hand of Mr. Pompeo, who was among those said to be advocating for him.
“I am pleased to announce that I will name Robert C. O’Brien, currently serving as the very successful Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department, as our new National Security Adviser,”
Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!”
Mr. O’Brien, a founding partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Larson O’Brien, will be Mr. Trump’s fourth national security adviser in three years, the most any president has had in a first term. He has written regularly about foreign policy and collected a series of essays into a book, “While America Slept,” published in 2016 during the last presidential campaign with a cover blurb from Mr. Bolton.
In that book, Mr. O’Brien warned of the dangers that major powers like Russia and China pose and argued against “appeasement and retreat” as he excoriated President Barack Obama for what he deemed a weak foreign policy. He compared Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran to the Munich Agreement that emboldened Adolf Hitler in 1938.
“America faces a stark choice in 2016 between a continuation of President Obama’s ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy and sequester-based national security approach and a return to President Reagan’s ‘leader of the free world’ foreign policy and ‘peace through strength’ national security approach,” he wrote.
Mr. O’Brien served with Mr. Bolton when he was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and has advised Republican candidates like Mitt Romney, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. In both the Bush and Obama administrations, Mr. O’Brien worked on
an initiative to train lawyers and judges in Afghanistan.
He was appointed the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs under Mr. Trump and worked to release Americans held abroad. Among those who have been freed are
Andrew Brunson, a pastor held by Turkey for two years, and
Danny Burch, an oil-company engineer kidnapped in Yemen and
rescued in a raid by forces from the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Trump has often celebrated these releases with meetings in the Oval Office, where Mr. O’Brien praised the president lavishly.
“This wouldn’t happen with all of these hostages and detainees without the support of the president,” Mr. O’Brien said in March after Mr. Burch’s release. “The president has had unparalleled success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges, but through force of will and the good will that he’s generated around the world.”
Mr. Trump has often cited that praise, even taking it another step. “‘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,’”
he wrote on Twitter in April, citing Mr. O’Brien.
Mr. Trump sent Mr. O’Brien to Sweden for an unusual mission of trying to win the release of the rap star ASAP Rocky, who had been arrested on charges of criminal assault. A Swedish judge
released the rapper pending a resolution of the case and a court later
found him guilty; he was ordered to pay damages but did not have to spend more time behind bars.
Mr. O’Brien had a successful meeting with the president and with the acting White House chief of staff on Friday, according to a person familiar with the events. Mr. Trump has been taken with Mr. O’Brien’s looks and demeanor, thinking he “looks the part,” as one person close to the president said.
Mr. O’Brien is not well known personally to the president, but he has seen him in the Oval Office at different events. He also liked the role that Mr. O’Brien has played, including in the ASAP Rocky case.
Mr. O’Brien waged a low-key campaign for the job, making clear to the president that he wanted it and encouraging others to talk him up as a possibility. He has the distinction of being acceptable to a wide swath of the president’s supporters, in contrast to people like Brian H. Hook, the special envoy for Iran who had attracted negative attention from a variety of corners.
Mr. O’Brien will be the highest-ranking Mormon in government. He was on Mr. Pompeo’s short list of acceptable choices, according to two people involved in the process.
Kent Lucken, an alumnus of the Mitt Romney national security advisers group from the 2012 campaign who worked with Mr. O’Brien there, said: “I think he’ll be a good fit with the national security team. He’s a good team player. He’s a tough negotiator, sharp guy that I think will fit with what the president is looking for. He’s a defense hawk. I would expect him to be strong on China.”
Mr. O’Brien’s first test as national security adviser may be Iran. While Mr. Trump has hinted at military action to retaliate for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, saying at one point that the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond, he has also said he was in no rush to use force. On Wednesday, he emphasized an economic response.
“I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!”
Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, without elaborating.
The president on Tuesday
got into a Twitter exchange on Iran with a close ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, in which Mr. Trump defended his reluctance to authorize military action.
Mr. Graham cited the president’s decision to call off an airstrike after Iran shot down an unmanned surveillance drone, saying it was taken by Tehran as “a sign of weakness.” Mr. Trump
fired back at Mr. Graham, writing, “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”
Mr. Trump followed up on Wednesday by retweeting a post by Laura Ingraham, the conservative commentator, concurring with him. “Totally agree — a sign of weakness would be a trigger-happy reaction to the drone strike,”
she wrote. “@realDonaldTrump’s right.
Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.