Like his predecessor, President Trump’s new national security adviser is known for advocating for a robust American presence abroad, but Robert O’Brien’s allies predict he will take a less confrontational approach to the role.
O’Brien, who until Wednesday was serving as the State Department’s top hostage negotiator, has been thrust into a decidedly more high-profile job that comes with many challenges — chief among them adjusting to Trump’s unconventional management style and finding a way to influence the president in a way that doesn’t alienate him.
Some who know O’Brien say he and John Bolton, the president’s last national security adviser, share many of the same hawkish views on foreign policy. But O’Brien is expected to take a low-key approach in comparison to Bolton, who was ousted abruptly on Sept. 10 after disagreements with Trump that often broke out into the public eye.
“You’re not going to see him on Fox News every weekend or every day. He’s going to be the type of person who is going to be advising Trump behind the scenes and giving him options on whatever national security challenges that are out there,” said Harry Kazianis, a senior director at the Center for the National Interest who has known and worked with O’Brien for roughly a decade.
“He’s not going to walk into this, and if the president makes a decision that he doesn’t like, he’s not going to try to sabotage it. He’s going to be that loyal soldier that does whatever the president asks of him,” Kazianis said.
O’Brien’s more bellicose foreign policy positions could in some areas put him at odds with Trump, who has pushed an “America first” agenda and supports the withdrawal of U.S. troops from conflicts abroad.
Kazianis mused, for example, that O’Brien, who will be Trump’s fourth national security adviser, would likely advocate for some kind of kinetic strike on Iran in the wake of the attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
Trump has appeared averse to military action in response to the drone strikes. On Friday, he imposed new economic sanctions on Iran and advocated for the use of “restraint,” arguing it would display more strength than launching bombs.
Those familiar with O’Brien expect him to work to ease any confrontation with the president in areas where they do disagree — something that could be crucial to his success in the role.
“It sounds like when John Bolton and the president weren’t on the same page, that disagreement became clear to everyone,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for New American Security. “I would bet that Robert will bring a defter approach to dealing with the president in areas where other options should be considered. A lot of this is about personality.”
“The president seems to cease listening much once he concludes someone is not part of his philosophical camp,” continued Fontaine, who served in positions at the National Security Council and State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “Knowing that going in suggests that he would try to manage that in a less confrontational fashion.”
Trump and O’Brien are likely to be simpatico on some challenges, such as confronting the China threat and pursuing diplomatic efforts on North Korea’s nuclear program. O’Brien has written extensively on the Chinese navy and its movements in the Asia Pacific. He has also advocated for building up the U.S. military — a key facet of the president’s agenda.
O’Brien comes on board to the National Security Council with less government experience than most. He will need to coordinate across a sprawling national security apparatus, dealing with various competing views and distilling them into advice that Trump will trust.
Still, O’Brien enters with a distinct advantage: He has built a solid relationship with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose influence within the administration has risen and solidified even further with the Bolton’s ouster.
Pompeo rarely breaks with Trump publicly and is a key player on many of his administration’s priorities. He has been able to retain the president’s trust amid an exodus of other top national security officials.
“There are multiple challenges that [O’Brien] will face from the get-go,” said Charles Kupchan, a former senior director on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “First, I think, will be to figure out how to influence the president and to build a consequential relationship with him.”
“He has pursued ‘America First’ as he sees fit, and there are a lot of casualties as a result of efforts to reign him in, from Kelly, to Mattis, to Tillerson to Coats,” Kupchan continued, referring to Trump’s former chief of staff, secretaries of Defense and State and director of national intelligence.
O’Brien assumes the role at a critical juncture for the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
The president is weighing further response on the Saudi oil attacks, charting a path forward on withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan and pursuing further denuclearization talks with North Korea.
O’Brien was brought on as the Trump administration’s hostage envoy in May 2018 and seems to have quickly gained the respect and trust of the president, who praised him for his feats on Friday.
“Robert is going to be outstanding,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “He did a tremendous job as hostage negotiator. We have a tremendous record — nobody comes close to our record with hostages.”
Cheering the administration’s “tremendous foreign policy successes” in an appearance alongside Trump in California on Wednesday, O’Brien, who is described by some as having a “Reaganesque” approach to foreign policy, twice mentioned the need to pursue “peace through strength” — a catchphrase from the Ronald Reagan years.
O’Brien served as co-chairman of the State Department’s public-private partnership for justice reform in Afghanistan during the Obama administration, and before that worked alongside Bolton at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration.
He also cofounded a Los Angeles-based law firm, Larson O’Brien, and is well-known in conservative circles for advising a number of Republicans on foreign policy, including now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Nile Gardiner, a Europe and foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who knew O’Brien from their work advising Romney’s presidential campaign, said he didn’t expect there to be a dramatic “ideological shift” with O’Brien’s replacement of Bolton but that his collegial nature would help him with Trump.
“President Trump’s style can often be unconventional, and a national security adviser, his role is an incredibly important one I think in helping shape President Trump’s thinking,” Gardiner said.
“Building that kind of personal chemistry with the president is absolutely essential, and I think O’Brien can do that well.”
Romney weighed in on O’Brien’s appointment Wednesday, saying he believed the new national security adviser will “be very effective in listening to others in the intelligence community and assembling information and providing the president with choices and alternatives.”
Asked whether he will handle Trump well, Romney replied with a knowing smile, “I can’t possibly predict how that will work out.”
—Rebecca Kheel contributed.