WASHINGTON — After three national security advisers in less than three years, President Trump’s latest pick for the job is being greeted with high praise among Washington insiders who believe the candidate’s experience and relationship with the president will help him fare better than his predecessors.
Trump on Wednesday morning announced in a tweet that he was promoting his top hostage recovery negotiator, Robert O’Brien, to be his fourth national security adviser amid ongoing global tensions with Iran, China and North Korea. The announcement comes just days after Trump tweeted about the departure of John Bolton, a hawk who was often at odds with the president and some of his closest advisers.
“He’s worked with me for quite a while now on hostages. And we’ve got a tremendous track record with respect to hostages,” Trump told reporters outside Air Force One on Wednesday.
O’Brien, who was traveling with Trump in Los Angeles, told reporters he “look[s] forward” to working with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “We’ve got a number of challenges, but there’s a great team in place,” he said. “I look forward to working with them and working with the president to keep America safe and continue to rebuild our military.”
Multiple sources close to the White House told Yahoo News that O’Brien, an attorney who was appointed as the special envoy on hostage issues in May 2018, has a strong rapport not only with Trump but also with Pompeo and the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. “This guy has done amazing work,” said one source familiar with the matter, citing multiple hostage recoveries without ransoms being paid.
One of the sources said the president narrowed his shortlist for the post to Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg and O’Brien, but the envoy’s high-profile work to help free A$AP Rocky, the American rapper detained in Sweden, was a key factor in Trump’s decision to name him to the post.
O’Brien’s appointment signifies a further elevation of the importance the administration has placed on rescuing captured Americans overseas. Trump and other senior administration officials have touted their record recovering hostages and pressuring adversaries like Iran, Venezuela and North Korea in tweets and public statements.
O’Brien has worked to help release prisoners from countries including North Korea, Turkey and Iran, and is also credited with advocating for journalist Austin Tice, who has been held in Syria since 2012.
His most recent high-profile case came in July, when the White House sent O’Brien to Stockholm as Trump and his allies sought to get rapper A$AP Rocky released from a Swedish jail where he was detained during a trial that followed a street brawl.
The involvement of the hostage envoy, a position President Barack Obama created in 2015 to help recover Americans wrongfully detained or kidnapped, was unique. Sweden, a democratic country, had charged the American rapper with assault; Rocky ultimately had to pay a fine after being found guilty and was released.
Whatever the unique circumstances of the special envoy’s involvement in that case, those who know O’Brien praise his ability to work with Trump, other federal agencies and foreign governments.
A former colleague of O’Brien’s who met with him recently praised the hostage negotiator’s work under Trump. “Working hostage issues crosses many boundaries, and it requires detailed knowledge of geopolitical and strategic dynamics for the countries you’re dealing with,” said the former official.
“I think he’s built a good relationship with the president,” which is “a very important ingredient” for the chief national security role in the White House, the official continued. “I think that bodes well, as long as he can keep that magic formula and that relationship with the president.”
While serving as the special envoy, O’Brien maintained his position as a partner at Larson O’Brien, a boutique law firm based in Los Angeles where, according to its website, the client roster includes IBM, HBO and FedEx. The firm’s site describes O’Brien’s portfolio as including “individuals and companies in the entertainment, oil and gas, technology, finance and real estate industries.“
The firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
O’Brien, who is an officer in the Army reserves, previously represented the United States at the U.N. General Assembly under President George W. Bush between 2005 and 2006. He also helped advise Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz.
Brian Hook, currently the special envoy for Iran, also advised Romney and was under consideration for the national security adviser job. However, Trump’s allies warned the president that Hook would be too hawkish, a reason Trump said he fired Bolton, his most recent national security adviser. Bolton told reporters he resigned.
O’Brien served at the U.N. General Assembly when Bolton was U.N. ambassador.
Given some of his ties to Hook and Bolton, critics questioned whether O’Brien would clash with Trump. However, O’Brien’s former colleagues and national security experts who spoke to Yahoo News uniformly praised his record as well as his close relationship to the president.
“I think it’s a solid and inspired choice,” said Chris Costa, former special assistant to the president and current executive director of the International Spy Museum. “I know what the work entails, and I know Robert O’Brien.”
Julia Nesheiwat, who served as the deputy presidential envoy for hostage affairs under O’Brien, described him as an “honest broker” with the “worldwide experience” to excel in the role. “I think the president made a fantastic choice,” she said during a phone interview.
Nesheiwat, recently appointed as Florida’s first chief resilience officer, also noted that the job of chief hostage negotiator requires “a lot of interagency work … to bring Americans home. He’ll now be able to help even more.”
A former government official who has worked with O'Brien on hostage issues described him as a “tireless advocate for hostage families and for the hostages themselves” who came up with creative ways to help bring Americans home.
“He strikes me as a problem solver,” the former official said. “I’ve never seen him as an ideologue.”
O’Brien’s reception on Capitol Hill has also been warm, according to Republican Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida. “We sadly have a number of hostages from Florida, including the Levinsons,” Waltz said in a phone call with Yahoo News, referring to former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
O’Brien “has been great dealing with us on the Hill. ... I think he has the temperament and experience for the job,” he continued.
Another reason the president may have taken a liking to O’Brien is a book on foreign policy he wrote called “While America Slept,” which was broadly critical of the Democratic Party’s diplomacy, particularly during Obama’s tenure. The book includes chapters criticizing Obama’s strategy on the Iran nuclear deal, as well as one that asks: “Is the Benghazi attack Obama’s Madrid train bombings?”
However, Waltz said that “it’s important with that job that folks don’t come in with hard-core ideas, that they present options to the president.” He told Yahoo News he believes that O’Brien, who has had to work closely with law enforcement, diplomats, the military, governments around the world, rogue regimes and terrorist groups, “fits all of those areas.”
“O’Brien brings to the job a set of positive relationships with other senior people in the administration, to include the president and Secretary Pompeo. That is a good thing,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He retired in December 2017 and now serves as a senior director for the national security and counterterrorism programs at the McCain Institute.
“A big test for him as national security adviser, though, will be whether he is able and willing to establish the kind of rigorous process of national security decision making that we are traditionally used to seeing out of the National Security Council process,” he continued.
Critics of Bolton were frustrated by his lack of communication with staff and engagement in the interagency process and argued that his leadership deteriorated the functioning of the NSC.
In the meantime, Trump has not yet named a replacement for special envoy, but O’Brien’s move to a higher position could be good news for some of the families who still need help getting their loved ones home.
The family of Paul Whelan, an American who has been detained in Moscow for the last nine months on espionage charges, hopes O’Brien will be an advocate for Whelan in the White House. While Ambassador Jon Huntsman has been a prominent public defender of Whelan, he will retire in early October.
Russian officials have yet to present any evidence that Whelan, whose health has deteriorated in detention, was spying on Russia.
Ryan Fayhee, a former attorney at the Department of Justice who specialized in counterespionage cases, has volunteered his time to help the Whelan family navigate the maze of the executive branch, and he told Yahoo News he welcomed news of O’Brien’s new position.
“It’s good news from our perspective and the family’s perspective to have somebody with his skillset to be moving into this position,” he said.
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