Robert C. O’Brien. (Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
Ending a frantic search that dominated early autumn in Washington, President Donald Trump announced Robert C. O’Brien, the establishmentarian administration hostage negotiator, as his fourth national security advisor Wednesday.
“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 Advisor. I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!” Trump said on Twitter.
As a source close to O’Brien told me for my previous reporting for TAC, O’Brien is “Bolton lite,” an heir in spirit to the fiery national security advisor he replaces. The appointment is a victory for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for whom O’Brien served. Pompeo, after having nearly no relationship with the president during the campaign three years ago, now stands astride American foreign policy as a Kissingerian figure, by far the president’s most influential advisor, save maybe his family.
Like Pompeo, O’Brien kept his distance from then-candidate Trump during his unruly rise through the Republican ranks. A veteran of the George W. Bush administration, O’Brien first backed Scott Walker and then latee Ted Cruz, Trump’s final, most vicious rival. Shortly after Trump’s win in November 2016, in an interview with Larry King, O’Brien endorsed Mitt Romney for secretary of state. Pompeo’s State Department at times can look like a veritable “hall of Never Trump,” as the secretary has retained the services of formerly trenchant critics of the president, such as Elliot Abrams, a leading neoconservative, and Mary Kissel. The foreword to O’Brien’s magnum opus, While America Slept, was written by Hugh Hewitt, a national security grandee in conservative circles but a johnny-come-lately to Trump.
By hiring a Bolton acolyte, Trump has showed the lynchpin of a successful relationship with him is the personal, not the political. Trump on the tarmac Wednesday said he knew O’Brien well.
Trump castigated Bolton’s troubled foreign policy track record in extraordinary terms after he axed him, giving hope to those who believed Trump would, finally, more forcefully turn the page on Republican foreign policy orthodoxy. But Trump’s hiring of a hawkish heir to Mr. Bolton recalls other episodes in Trump personnel moves. In early 2018, Trump parted ways with Gary Cohn, the ambitious former Goldman CEO, over tariffs, only to hire Lawrence Kudlow, arguably an even more fanatical free trader, who just days prior had publicly questioned Trump’s tariff course. But Kudlow and Trump are good friends.
O’Brien promises to be a lower key figure than Bolton, though as with all else in Trumpworld, much remains unclear. First on deck: dealing with Iran, which offers multiple opportunities for disaster.
Just before he tweeted out O’Brien’s hiring, Trump said: “I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!” But Trump, in recent hours, has also responded with hostility to those who’ve implied he’s not sufficiently hawkish. Ribbing Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump said: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!” Graham had called Trump’s thus far as one “clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.”
Iran continues to spook America’s national security community. A source at SpaceX, the ambitious aerospace of mogul Elon Musk, indicated to TAC that the company has scaled back some of its commercial work in recent days in order to respond to a glut of requests for satellite imagery over the Middle East. Trump has flirted with a strike on Iran before, most recently in June, only to call it off last minute, at the urging of restraint-oriented interlocutors such as Tucker Carlson.
O’Brien’s ascension has a campaign element as well. O’Brien secured Sweden’s release of American rap star A$AP Rocky in a maneuver that greatly impressed the president and his family. Trump’s influential son-in-law has been telling the Republican donor circuit that episodes such like this, combined with administration-shepherded criminal justice reform, could win the president a relatively substantial portion of the African-American vote. Kushner, interestingly, lost out this round on his first pick for national security advisor— the senior counselor to the president was backing Brian Hook, the Iran envoy.
For now, Washington waits as the successor to Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster and Bolton tries his new digs on for size.
Curt Mills is senior writer for The American Conservative.