Who is Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser pick?

Trump says he will name the lawyer and hostage negotiator as hawkish John Bolton’s replacement.

Robert O''Brien
Trump speaks to reporters with US hostage negotiator Robert O'Brien after he named O'Brien as his fourth White House national security adviser [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

Washington, DC – Within a day of announcing his shortlist of five candidates for the White House’s top security job, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he picked Robert O’Brien as John Bolton’s replacement as national security adviser.

“I have worked long and hard with Robert,” Trump tweeted in his announcement of the replacement. “He will do a great job!”

Speaking alongside Trump after the announcement, O’Brien said “we’ve got a number of challenges” and it was a privilege to be picked to serve in the position. 

O’Brien, a hostage negotiator and seen as a Trump loyalist, has long been present in the US Republican foreign policy arena. He is currently the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department and has served with past administrations and advised former presidential candidates.

But O’Brien, unlike Bolton, is a relatively low-profile pick, at least in the public sphere.

“He is not a high-profile figure, and that’s important,” said Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who served under former President Barack Obama.

“This is not a figure who is going to in any way threaten the primacy of the president on foreign policy,” Rubin told Al Jazeera.

Robert O'Brien
Trump listens to his newly announced White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien speak to reporters [Tom Brenner/Reuters] 

Trump forced Bolton, a leading foreign policy hawk, out last week, saying he “strongly” disagreed with his national security adviser on multiple issues.

Bolton, described by many as a “warmonger”, reportedly clashed with Trump on decisions related to Venezuela, North Korea and Iran.

“Trump, after enduring the Bolton experience, clearly has no use for a strong personality or ideologue in the National Security Adviser position,” tweeted Ned Price, the former spokesman for the US National Security Council under former President Barack Obama.

“Pompeo may not be dual-hatted as Secretary of State and NSA, but he might as well be with this arrangement,” he added, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Republican foreign policy circles

Most recently, O’Brien gained attention due to his involvement in the A$AP Rocky case in Sweden. Rocky, an American rapper, was held by Swedish police over his alleged involvement in a street fight in Stockholm. A judge agreed to release Rocky, who was later found guilty and ordered to pay a fine.

O’Brien has also held a number of State Department positions and in 2005, served as the US representative to the UN General Assembly after being nominated by then-President George W Bush and confirmed by the Senate. In that capacity, he worked with Bolton, who was US ambassador to the UN at the time.

According to Reuters News Agency, the pair share frustration with the world body. 

“My 13-year-old son, who is far more interested in sports than politics, walked into the family room yesterday and said: ‘Dad, I saw on the news that the thing is starting when all the dictators come to America and give speeches about how bad we are.’ His statement is one of the better descriptions of the United Nations General Assembly that I have ever heard,” Reuters quoted O’Brien as having said. 

Robert O'Brien
US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert C O’Brien arrives at the district court, during the second day of A$AP Rocky’s trial, in Stockholm, Sweden [File: Handout/Fedrik Persson/TT News Agency/Reuters] 

O’Brien has also served as an adviser on the former Republican presidential campaigns of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ted Cruz.

“Congratulations to my friend Robert O’Brien,” tweeted Romney.

“As the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, he has doggedly pursued the release of American hostages abroad,” Romney added. “He is a man of highest integrity.”

Hostage negotiator 

According to Rubin, O’Brien’s hostage negotiation work likely seemed advantageous to the president given O’Brien’s “ability and/or willingness to talk to [US] adversaries”. 


O’Brien helped secure the 2018 release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, whose two-year imprisonment in Turkey heightened tensions between Washington and Ankara. Earlier this year, O’Brien also played a role in the release of American Danny Burch who was imprisoned in Yemen. Burch was working for an oil company when he was kidnapped in 2017, according to the New York Times.

O’Brien holds a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to law school, he attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied political science.

O’Brien cofounded the law firm, Larson O’Brien LLP, and he was a major in the US Army. From 1996 to 1998, he was a senior legal officer at the UN Security Council where he handled government claims against Iraq after the first Gulf War. He later served under former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton as the co-chairman of the State Department’s public-private partnership for justice reform in Afghanistan.


Trump’s choice comes as the US considers its response to attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, and less than a month after Trump abruptly called off US-Taliban talks, which were aimed at starting the process to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. 


US and Saudi officials blame Iran for the weekend attacks on major Saudi oil plants, an allegation Tehran denies.

Trump announced O’Brien as his pick not long after he said on Twitter that he had ordered the substantial increase of sanctions on Iran.

On policy, Rubin sees O’Brien as a pick that is “definitely … going to reinforce a lot of [the administration’s] tendencies”.

O’Brien was highly critical of Obama’s foreign policy decisions, especially the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew the US from last year.

In a series of essays, published as a book in 2016 called While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis, O’Brien described the deal, negotiated under Obama, as the “Iran deal disaster”.

“In addition to legitimising Iran’s now supposedly ‘peaceful’ atomic programme, the deal will likely lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” O’Brien wrote. “It is hard to imagine that Sunni states such as Egypt, Turkey and, especially, Saudi Arabia, will not immediately begin the process of procuring nuclear arms on their own or from a sympathetic third country like Pakistan to counter Iran, which will in essence be an internationally recognised nuclear threshold state.”

In the book, O’Brien also warned against China’s “rapid and impressive effort to establish itself as the supreme maritime power in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans”.

O’Brien concludes the book by saying, the US “faces a stark choice in 2016 between a continuation of President Obama’s ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy and sequester-based national security approach and a return to President [Ronald] Reagan’s ‘leader of the free world’ foreign policy and ‘peace through strength’ national security approach. The stakes in this dangerous time could not be any higher.”

Source: Al Jazeera