Trump Taps Hostage Negotiator O'Brien for National Security Adviser

Trump sees Robert C. O’Brien as a 'deal maker,' a more private alternative to hawkish, media-hungry John Bolton

Amir Tibon
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Robert O'Brien pictured outside the Stockholm district court during efforts to get US rapper A$AP Rocky home, July 30, 2019
Robert O'Brien pictured outside the Stockholm district court during efforts to get US rapper A$AP Rocky home, July 30, 2019 Credit: AFP
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday on Twitter that Robert C. O’Brien will be the successor to John Bolton as national security adviser.

Trump wrote, "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!"

Unlike his predecessor, who spent a decade as a political activist and commentator before joining the Trump administration in 2018, O’Brien spent the past year working in a position that comes with a low media profile. Trump chose Bolton for the job of National Security Adviser mainly because of his bombastic television appearances, in which Bolton promoted hawkish, right-wing views regarding the Middle East and South America.

>> Read more: Why Netanyahu and Dermer have kept silent about John Bolton | Analysis ■ Washington may be ready for talks post-Bolton, but Iran is still hesitant | Analysis

Those same views, however, eventually led Trump and Bolton to have a series of policy disagreements, on everything from Iran and Afghanistan to Venezuela and North Korea. Those disagreement caused Trump to fire Bolton last week, as part of his attempts to open negotiations with Iran.

O’Brien’s main line of work for Trump so far has been negotiations to release Americans held hostage around the world. “His hiring probably means Trump is looking for someone who can cut deals for him, unlike Bolton who was too stubborn in Trump’s view”, said one former U.S. official, who had worked with O’Brien before he joined government. “He’s a hawk, don’t get that wrong. But Trump views him as a deal maker.”

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the prominent voices on national security and foreign policy issues in the Republican Party, praised O’Brien, exposing that “he served in Afghanistan and is a seasoned national security professional who will provide steady leadership to the interagency process.” Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) called O’Brien, who advised his 2012 presidential campaign, “a man of the highest integrity.”

In 2015 and 2016, O’Brien expressed strong opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, at one point comparing it to the 1938 Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany. He also wrote an article encouraging Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, to criticize Trump over his wish to improve relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. His views are typical to the Republican establishment foreign policy world view.

In 2017, he published an article about how Israel was being discriminated against in the United Nations. The article attacked the Obama administration for not vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He said that the resolution “has done nothing to advance the peace process”.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and State Department official under the Obama administration, told Haaretz: “I don’t know much about this guy, and that in and of itself might be a good thing. A National Security Adviser who is less about his public persona and more about staffing the President is precisely the type of adviser that would work well for Trump.” Two other experts who work on issues related to Israel in Washington think-tanks, told Haaretz that they were not aware of any special connections that O’Brien has to Israel and Israel-related policy issues.

Former U.S. hostage in Yemen, Danny Burch, left, listens as President Donald Trump speaks, March 6, 2019. Robert O'Brien is on the right. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin,AP