Trump Names Hostage Envoy Robert O’Brien as National Security Adviser

Nick Wadhams and Jennifer Jacobs

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said Wednesday he’ll appoint Robert O’Brien as his White House national security adviser, elevating the State Department’s top hostage envoy from relative obscurity to one of the most important jobs in U.S. government.

O’Brien had the backing of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, whose central role shaping the administration’s foreign policy will be solidified by the appointment.

Trump fired the former national security adviser, John Bolton, last week after disputes over the administration’s foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere. On Tuesday, Trump named five finalists for the job, including O’Brien.

O’Brien has no known experience managing an organization the size of the National Security Council, which has about 300 employees. By Trump’s telling, he appeared to have won over the president in part by praising him in a job interview.

Trump told reporters on Tuesday: “Robert O’Brien said Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator in history. He happens to be right.” Trump also called himself the greatest hostage negotiator in an April tweet.

Trump trusts O’Brien, and the two clicked when they spoke, according to a senior administration official.

Law Firm

Before being named hostage envoy, O’Brien had been a partner at a California law firm and advised the 2016 presidential campaigns of Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. He was now-Senator Mitt Romney’s senior foreign policy adviser when the Utah Republican ran for president in 2012.

“He’s a very sharp guy,” said Kent Lucken, who was a colleague of O’Brien’s on two Romney campaigns. “A very sharp negotiator. Defense hawk. He’ll be tough on China.”

O’Brien, considered by Trump for Navy secretary in 2017, supports the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other alliances, Lucken said.

O’Brien has had a long involvement in international matters, Lucken said, including work on the State Department’s Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan.

O’Brien has led the department’s efforts to secure the release of U.S. hostages held by foreign governments, including North Korea and Iran. Previously, he worked for Bolton when Bolton was United Nations ambassador in the George W. Bush administration. He also was a State Department official under former Secretary Hillary Clinton.

But his foreign policy views largely align with Trump’s. In O’Brien’s book “While America Slept,” which was published shortly before the 2016 election and highlights his own foreign experience, O’Brien railed against what he called Obama’s “lead from behind” approach and accused the former president of emboldening “autocrats, tyrants and terrorists.”

‘Long and Hard’

Trump said in his tweet that he’s worked “long and hard” with O’Brien. The negotiator’s most visible role in the administration thus far engendered widespread derision: the president’s decision to dispatch him to Sweden to monitor legal proceedings involving A$AP Rocky, an American rapper who was arrested after a Stockholm street fight.

The rapper, whose real name is Rakim Mayers, was convicted and given a conditional jail sentence, but the Swedes released him after Trump took up his cause on Twitter.

O’Brien has helped free U.S. hostages including Danny Burch, an engineer at an oil company who was taken hostage by a criminal gang in Yemen.

O’Brien didn’t answer a phone call on Wednesday or respond to an email seeking comment.

Trump gave Pompeo a significant say in choosing the next national security adviser -- a position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation -- after the secretary of state repeatedly clashed with Bolton. Bolton’s departure left Pompeo unchallenged as Trump’s closest foreign policy adviser.

Pompeo had favored O’Brien or Ricky Waddell, a former national security official in the Trump administration.

(Updates with book in 12th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Jordan Fabian.

To contact the reporters on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net;Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at jjacobs68@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Justin Blum, Larry Liebert

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