National security adviser O'Brien jockeys for future spot in a Trump administration

Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube
·12 min read

WASHINGTON — National security adviser Robert O'Brien was just a few months into his new job when he asked aides to print him copies of two transcripts.

One was of O'Brien's remarks at a foreign policy forum, where he'd offered a glowing review of what it's like to work for President Donald Trump. The other was of Defense Secretary Mark Esper's comments at the same forum, where he said Trump is "just one of many bosses I've had" who "you learn to work with."

O'Brien wanted to present Trump with a side-by-side comparison of his and Esper's comments so he could tell the president "look at how much more supportive I am," a senior administration official with direct knowledge of O'Brien's request said.

"It was really strange," a second official with direct knowledge of the request said, and O'Brien ultimately took Trump only his own remarks.

The episode encapsulates a theme that more than two dozen current and former senior administration officials, U.S. lawmakers and American and European diplomats told NBC News has run through O'Brien's 13 months as national security adviser: his concern about his future and standing with Trump.

While Americans are just days from deciding whether to re-elect Trump, O'Brien has spent months laying the groundwork for an elevated role in a second term. Officials have said since the summer that Trump has made it clear that Esper will be out after the election, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo isn't expected to remain in the administration for another full term.

But O'Brien has signaled that he intends to remain a fixture in Republican circles even if Trump loses Tuesday, telling some confidants that he might seek public office himself, including perhaps the presidency. His tenure as Trump's fourth national security adviser offers a glimpse into how O'Brien, a lawyer from California who advised Mitt Romney's and Ted Cruz's presidential campaigns, may approach any future government position.

While O'Brien has succeeded in pleasing his boss, he has alienated many staff members on the National Security Council. Longtime current and former officials described O'Brien's front office as "a black hole" and said he has repeatedly delegated issues that might put him in the president's crosshairs, such as Russia and the coronavirus pandemic, to his deputy, the State Department or the Defense Department.

At the same time, O'Brien has championed a hard-line China policy, an Iran pressure campaign and an expansion of the Navy fleet — all top issues for Trump.

In the run-up to the election, O'Brien has mixed his emphasis on defense issues with domestic politics. On Monday, he promoted Trump's record on the military during taxpayer-funded trips to two states Trump has been aggressively courting — Wisconsin and Minnesota — that focused on issues more common for a defense secretary to address.

O'Brien met with Air National Guard members and headlined a mining industry event with a Republican member of Congress in a part of Minnesota that the Trump campaign has been targeting. O'Brien also gave an interview to the Duluth News Tribune, saying, "I think we've seen a good turnaround in the Iron Belt since President Trump took office."

After demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd, O'Brien added large-scale protests — a new campaign focus for Trump — to the National Security Council's priorities. O'Brien appeared with Trump in his notorious photo opportunity in front of St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House after protesters had been cleared from the area. Unlike the other members of Trump's national security team who were there — Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley — O'Brien has never tried to distance himself from the moment.

Image: President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and national security adviser Robert O'Brien (Tom Brenner / Reuters)
Image: President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and national security adviser Robert O'Brien (Tom Brenner / Reuters)

Allies of O'Brien say that's how a national security adviser is supposed to approach the job — elevating the president's top priorities and advancing his agenda. They said Trump felt that O'Brien's predecessors, particularly John Bolton, often put their own agendas ahead of his. And they defended O'Brien's decision to spend more time with his boss and his peers than with the National Security Council staff, which he cut by about a third.

"He spends a lot of time with his counterparts and people who are more senior," a White House official said. "O'Brien sees his role to be as prioritizing what the president's priorities are."

While O'Brien ultimately sent Trump only a transcript of his own remarks last December, along with a memo explaining that they were from his appearance at the Reagan National Defense Forum, he has made sure that Trump is aware of any of Esper's perceived missteps.

"Robert has been actively promoting himself to replace Esper after the election," a senior administration official said.

O'Brien has a strained relationship with other military leaders, according to senior defense officials, and the tensions were aggravated by a recent public dispute he had with Milley over the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. That has prompted speculation among some defense officials that he has more recently set his sights on becoming secretary of state if Trump wins a second term.

A spokesman for the National Security Council, John Ullyot, denied that O'Brien requested the printed transcripts of his and Esper's remarks for comparison or that he's interested in any job other than national security adviser.

"The incident described never happened," Ullyot said, adding that O'Brien has "good relationships" at the Pentagon and with Esper and Milley. "He has no interest in other positions in the administration and is privileged to work directly with President Trump each and every day."

Ullyot also disputed the notion that O'Brien's approach to his job is driven by his future aspirations and standing with Trump.

"Your accusations seriously misrepresent Ambassador O'Brien's tenure at the NSC and are riddled with inaccuracies and falsehoods," Ullyot said in a statement.

Trump named O'Brien his national security adviser in September 2019. O'Brien first came onto Trump's radar when he was the administration's chief hostage negotiator. Trump is said to like him, but O'Brien isn't part of Trump's inner circle.

"You're getting almost a chief-of-staff-like person," a White House official said of O'Brien, "who has a lot of loyalty to the president and who is not going to stick his neck out on any issue."

At times, O'Brien's exuberance for his job has rankled his colleagues. After Trump's trip in February to India, where O'Brien repeatedly posed for selfies and asked other officials to take photographs of him, a senior White House official spoke with O'Brien about his conduct.

"He gets excited about things," a senior administration official said.

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner denied that anyone spoke with O'Brien about his behavior in India, saying in a statement that "this is completely false. It did not happen."

O'Brien typically arrives at the White House around 8:30 or 9 a.m., several hours later than his recent predecessors, and he tends to leave in time for dinner.

For his first eight months as national security adviser, he didn't have a secure room at home where he could have classified conversations and review intelligence. It's unusual for a national security adviser not to have a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, at home because of the job's 24/7 nature. Before O'Brien had one installed in May, he would race down to the government vehicle parked outside his home in Washington to take secure phone calls.

A White House official said that O'Brien requested a SCIF at home immediately after he became national security adviser but that because he lives in an apartment complex, installing it was "considerably more challenging." The official said the coronavirus pandemic also "significantly delayed" installation, although the government wasn't under restrictions because of the pandemic until March.

O'Brien's handling of the pandemic has aggravated frustrations among some National Security Council staff members, who say he should have taken the lead on the issue.

O'Brien has said he warned Trump at the end of January that the pandemic would be the biggest national security threat of his presidency, but after his comments became public in news reports, Trump has denied that. It struck National Security Council staff members as peculiar that if O'Brien did tell Trump that, he would then delegate such a high-stakes crisis to his deputy, Matthew Pottinger.

And five days after he claimed that he delivered the private warning to Trump, O'Brien had a different message for Americans — one that matched Trump's tone.

"This is something that is a low risk, we think, in the U.S.," O'Brien said in an interview Feb. 2 on CBS' "Face the Nation." His public posture about the pandemic has since varied. Speaking on "Face the Nation" last weekend, for instance, O'Brien said: "I called this thing early. I wore a mask early, and I still got Covid and survived it."

Like other Trump advisers, O'Brien didn't regularly wear a mask while at the White House or traveling. In July, shortly after he returned from Paris, where he met with French President Emmanuel Macron and was pictured without a mask in multiple photographs standing alongside European officials, O'Brien tested positive for the coronavirus.

O'Brien quietly left the White House early, without informing National Security Council staffers or the French government of his results. Four days later, the French government and almost all National Security Council staffers learned that O'Brien had tested positive from news reports.

Aides to Macron were livid. Pottinger, who was with O'Brien on the Paris trip, tried to contain the fallout in a series of phone calls explaining that O'Brien believed he'd contracted the virus at a family event he attended after he returned to the U.S.

A White House official defended O'Brien for not notifying his staff before the media. "I don't know that he would've had a way to let NSC officials know something like this," the official said.

The disconnect was a contrast from the initial impression O'Brien left with National Security Council staffers. Shortly after he took the job, at the end of a long day at the annual U.N. General Assembly, O'Brien surprised several political appointees and career officials when he took them out for pizza in New York. He also held a couple of town hall meetings to allow staff members to ask questions or raise concerns.

"There is a gentleness to the man," a senior administration official said.

“Robert brings no additional drama,” said Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun. “He is calm. He’s pretty easy to approach.”

That view of O'Brien quickly changed as Trump's impeachment played out last winter. O'Brien had been on the job only a couple of months, and he distanced himself from National Security Council officials testifying in House Democratic hearings. He became even more unpopular within the National Security Council as he carried out Trump's directive to cut staff and curtail leaks that Trump believed were aimed at undermining him.

"Everything now has been subjected to a very laborious bureaucratic process," a senior administration official said. "A tweet needs to be coordinated through the NSC and sent up as a decision memo."

A National Security Council official said the idea that the process has slowed under O'Brien "is being pushed by disgruntled former NSC staffers with personal agendas who are far removed from the reality of the NSC today."

Reports this summer about intelligence suggesting that Russia was offering money to militants in Afghanistan in exchange for killing U.S. troops fueled a perception within the National Security Council that O'Brien spends less time combing through intelligence than trying to remain in Trump's favor.

The intelligence about Russia was in the Presidential Daily Brief in February, but it wasn't verbally conveyed to Trump. O'Brien publicly blamed Trump's career CIA briefer. But the national security adviser ultimately decides what information gets verbally briefed to the president. O'Brien's excuses were seen internally as aimed at deflecting blame.

Around the time the Russia intelligence emerged, O'Brien was reading the manuscript of a book by his predecessor, Bolton, that was highly critical of Trump. Bolton's book was of keen interest to Trump, who wanted its publication blocked. Bolton had submitted his book for a standard prepublication review for classified information. O'Brien personally ordered and conducted a second review of Bolton's manuscript, delaying its publication.

Ullyot, the National Security Council spokesman, collected written statements from several top administration officials disputing the story, but he didn't allow NBC News to speak with the officials directly.

"This bears no resemblance to the Robert O'Brien I have worked with the past year," Pottinger said in a statement about allegations that O'Brien takes a hands-off approach to his staff. "Anyone pushing this portrayal is unaware of what actually comes across his desk."

In a statement, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said O'Brien "has incredible relationships with principals across the government, from Secretary Pompeo to Secretary Mnuchin to Larry Kudlow, myself, and many more."

"Clearly, those pushing the line that he does not have warm relations with his senior colleagues is woefully ignorant of the truth, or deliberately misleading the media," Meadows said.