On Coronavirus, National Security Threats, O’Brien Picks His Spots
Trump’s national security adviser has mostly avoided a public role, working behind the scenes to focus on China and subtly steer the president
Michael C. Bender and Gordon Lubold
April 29, 2020 8:00 am ET
WASHINGTON—When President Trump was initially hesitant about curbing travel from China in January, his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, described in stark terms the impending coronavirus threat. “This will be the largest national security crisis of your presidency,” Mr. O’Brien told the president, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Trump authorized the restrictions. While Mr. O’Brien viewed the novel coronavirus as an imminent danger, he largely removed himself from the spotlight on the administration’s response, instead picking moments to assert himself behind the scenes. He rarely attends coronavirus task force meetings, ceding those duties to his chief deputy, and has appeared just once, on March 19, at the president’s evening news conferences on the topic. After seven months on the job, Mr. O’Brien has settled into the role of facilitator. He is quicker than either of his predecessors, John Bolton or H.R. McMaster, to defer to the president’s judgment.
Mr. O’Brien arrives at the office by 9 a.m. most mornings, often fielding phone calls from the president much earlier, and is comfortable in the Washington social scene. He travels with Mr. Trump to Mar-a-Lago, and sits at the middle of the table in the White House Situation Room. But he has told colleagues that he is more comfortable in the background, viewing himself as a “quiet professional,” in the words of one associate, and sees himself as a senior aide, not a principal.
Publicly, the president has praised him for helping bring home some 75,000 Americans from foreign soil as coronavirus-related travel restrictions went into place. Mr. O’Brien, an attorney who has advised Republican presidential candidates including two of Mr. Trump’s competitors in 2016, touts his decision to cut the size of the National Security Council to 110 from 180, describing the move as one aimed at deflating a bloated bureaucracy, according to aides. He has since restored about a dozen of those positions to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Privately, Mr. O’Brien advocated bringing Dr. Deborah Birx into the White House to help coordinate the administration’s response to the virus. He unsuccessfully lobbied his counterpart in Europe to institute similar travel restrictions on China, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Mr. O’Brien played a key role in scotching the president’s meeting in February with the Austrian chancellor after his team told him there was a case of coronavirus inside the country’s foreign ministry, White House officials said. Austrians disputed the claim but agreed to postpone the meeting, a senior Austrian official said.
In March, Mr. O’Brien signed off on a meeting with Brazilian leaders during the president’s Florida vacation. Two days after those meetings, one of the South American officials who met with Mr. Trump tested positive for the disease.
Away from the cameras, the typically soft-spoken and measured Mr. O’Brien has flashed a temper. He slammed the table during one meeting in February, interrupting Vice President Mike Pence to make a point to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was hesitant to take actions that could undermine the economy, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
As the pandemic unfolded earlier this year, Mr. O’Brien told senior White House officials to consider Matthew Pottinger, his chief deputy, as the voice of the National Security Council on coronavirus matters, aides said. The decision was viewed inside the NSC as a way of freeing Mr. O’Brien to deal with other national security issues, a spokesman said.
Mr. Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Marine, raised early concerns inside the White House about the virus. But an approach colleagues described as aggressive complicated the knotty internal politics at the White House as the administration was struggling to find its footing in dealing with the pandemic.
Some senior officials said they became concerned when Mr. Pottinger wore a mask to the White House complex while the administration was asking Americans to leave the supply of masks for medical professionals. Mick Mulvaney, who was acting chief of staff until March, criticized Mr. Pottinger’s approach to senior staff, officials said.
At Mr. Pottinger’s urging, the National Security Council, the White House’s primary arm for coordinating the federal government’s response to national security issues, had called the first administration-wide coronavirus meeting in the Situation Room on Jan. 27. But when the White House formally created its task force a few days later, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was put in charge.
A month later, Mr. Azar was replaced by Vice President Pence. The NSC’s role has diminished as the administration’s focus shifted to disaster response.
Then national security adviser H.R. McMaster at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2018.
PHOTO: EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mr. O’Brien’s low-key approach has distinguished him from his predecessors in the Trump administration.
Mr. Bolton’s aggressive policy activism frustrated Mr. Trump, and he eventually resigned over the president’s interest in meeting with leaders of Iran and the Taliban. Mr. McMaster, who was an active-duty Army lieutenant general when he served as national security adviser, had a professorial style that wore on Mr. Trump. Mike Flynn, who was a retired Army lieutenant general when he served, was removed after more than a month in the job for lying to Vice President Mike Pence.
Mr. O’Brien was viewed by some to be an unlikely pick to join Mr. Trump in the White House. He was an adviser to Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon, for his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. He backed Scott Walker’s Republican bid in 2016. When the former Wisconsin governor dropped out, he advised Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign.
Mr. O’Brien was privately wary of Mr. Trump, according to friends and former colleagues, and publicly described Mr. Trump’s view on the defense budget as “troubling” and his approach to national security giving anxiety to “peace through strength” Republicans.
He took a more optimistic view once Mr. Trump won the party’s nomination, saying the real-estate magnate and reality TV star could grow into the job.
Mr. O’Brien first attracted Mr. Trump’s attention as the administration’s special envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department, said friends and associates. Under Mr. O’Brien, more than 40 Americans were released from various countries.
In the White House, Mr. O’Brien has focused the National Security Council more on China, officials said. He has written that the president’s focus on competition with China has been the administration’s most important foreign policy development.
While his two predecessors were known for their experience on Middle East policy, Mr. O’Brien, officials said, is more closely aligned with Peter Navarro, the president’s trade adviser who wrote the book, “Death by China.”
Messrs. Navarro and O’Brien struck up a correspondence when both were living in California, the former as a university professor and the latter as a law firm partner, after Mr. Navarro read an article and deemed Mr. O’Brien’s views on China sufficiently tough.
“For the first time we have a national security adviser whose strategic views and hard-nosed analytics are in line with the president’s,” Mr. Navarro said in an interview.
Mr. O’Brien has internal critics who believe he isn’t strong enough on other issues, such as the Middle East and Afghanistan. Many Pentagon leaders urge a robust American military presence to counter Iran, for example. Mr. O’Brien, believing the focus should be on countering China, has labored to advise the president on finding the right balance. But ultimately it is the president’s decision, aides say.
“What he doesn’t try to do is teach the president that his world view is wrong,” said one U.S. official. “It’s different from advising versus fundamentally trying to change his view.”
—Bojan Pancevski contributed to this article.