WASHINGTON — President Trump’s new National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, has shown little hesitation about flattering the boss, hailing Trump as the “greatest hostage negotiator” in U.S. history.
But his opinion of Trump hasn’t always been so complimentary: He once criticized Trump for having a “view of the world” closer to former President Barack Obama’s than a traditional Republican stance. He specifically took issue with Trump’s once-tepid support for Israel during the 2016 primary.
“Mr. Trump’s statement that he does not want to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian matter demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of America’s relationship with Israel,” O’Brien told the Washington Examiner in a little-noticed February 2016 interview. “He is closer to President Obama’s view of the world than the views of the GOP base.”
O’Brien didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
The rare bit of criticism hints at how skillfully O’Brien has managed to maneuver in Trump’s world while maintaining a traditionally conservative viewpoint on matters of foreign policy.
O’Brien’s perhaps best known as the guy Trump dispatched to get rapper A$AP Rocky out of Swedish prison. But the low-profile hostage negotiator has a history in conservative circles.
In fact, while O’Brien lacks the rough edges of the famously gruff man he’s replacing, John Bolton, he’s not that far-off from his predecessor’s hawkish inclinations. The two appear well-aligned in their hostile stance toward Iran, at a time when both the US and Iran frequently espouse talk of war.
A GOP Hawk
Comparing Trump to Obama wasn’t the only comment O’Brien let slip during the last primary season showing daylight between himself and his future boss.
Speaking to conservative radio pundit Hugh Hewitt, O’Brien stressed: “It’s important that our candidates understand the nuclear triad,” the fundamental platform for America’s nuclear arsenal. “That’s something that I think should be a subject at the debate that you co-moderate next month,” O’Brien told Hewitt.
A few weeks later, Hewitt pressed Trump about that exact question — and Trump famously demonstrated he didn’t know what that was.
But likening Trump to Obama seems especially pointed, given how sharply O’Brien criticized Obama for failing to take a harder line against Russia, Iran, and China in his 2016 book, “While America Slept.”
In those pages, O’Brien blasts Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy as woefully dangerous, and calls Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran “the worst diplomatic deal” since the infamous Munich agreement that emboldened Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s.
Bolton praised the book in a blurb on the cover as “required reading.”
The two men also worked together in the George W. Bush administration, when Bolton was Ambassador to the United Nations and O’Brien was representative to the UN General Assembly.
Later on during the 2016 campaign, after Trump won the nomination, O’Brien publicly urged Trump to consider Bolton for U.S. Secretary of State.
But while Bolton has been criticized for his abrasive personal style, O’Brien has won praise for being a genuinely nice guy — including from a former high-level Obama staffer, shortly after his appointment on Wednesday.
“He’s a very decent human being,” Andrew Exum, Obama’s former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, told VICE News, adding he’s known O’Brien for several years on a casual, friendly basis.
“He wasn’t a big fan of the last administration, but he was always quick with a personal word of encouragement to me, and I always appreciated that,” Exum said.
O’Brien has also received praise from on-again/off-again Trump critic, Mitt Romney, who hailed him as “my friend” and “a man of the highest integrity.” O’Brien advised Romney on foreign policy during Romney’s failed 2012 presidential run.
Trump fired Bolton, in part, because “he wasn't getting along with people in the administration that I consider very important,” Trump said.
Bolton privately slammed Trump’s foreign policy at a lunch on Wednesday, according to a report in Politico, saying any negotiations with Iran or North Korea are “doomed to failure.” He also called inviting the Taliban to Camp David “disrespectful” to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, because the Taliban harbored Al Qaeda.
Cover: President Donald Trump and new national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien talk with reporters before boarding Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)