Q&A: Former national security adviser Robert O’Brien says China and Russia pose biggest foreign threat

Adviser to former President Donald Trump on the biggest geopolitical challenges facing the United States

Robert O’Brien was the fourth person to hold the job of national security adviser under former President Donald Trump. He took over after John Bolton was fired by Trump in September 2019 and remained in the position until the end of Trump’s term.

O’Brien also served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He worked on both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, in 2008 and 2012.

O’Brien is in Utah to speak at a fundraiser for the Utah Republican Party on Friday. He will also address the Utah Republican State Convention on Saturday.

O’Brien spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune about his time in the Trump White House, how he prepared to become the nation’s 28th national security adviser, President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, and the biggest geopolitical challenge facing the United States.

The following transcript has been edited for grammar and clarity.

Can you describe your experience working in the Trump White House and what your job entailed?

The national security adviser is the principal adviser to the president on all the issues of foreign policy and national security. Your job is to make sure on foreign policy and national security issues that you get the best options, advice and opinions from the Cabinet, Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and others involved in that issue. And you get that information to the president so he can make a very important decision on how to proceed.

Sometimes there are differences of opinion among the agencies and cabinet officials. Sometimes there’s a consensus. And my goal is to crystallize that consensus or, if there is a disagreement, to make sure that we have the parameters of the different positions laid out. And then we take those to the president and have him make a decision on policy.

Once the president has made a decision, my job is to make sure that the agencies and cabinet departments actually execute the president’s policies, and then to give the president feedback on what the reactions were and what the consequences of the policy and to continue to refine and move forward with that policy.

As someone who interacted with him every single day, what was it like working with President Trump?

He was a very professional and we had a very cordial relationship. I think he appreciated the professionalism that my team brought to the entire National Security Council team. Our senior team did everything we could to make sure he was properly informed when he received the intelligence briefings and that he understood the policy options, so he could make the call on behalf of the American people. We have a very good working relationship. A very professional relationship. He can be a very charming guy. He’s very witty. He had a very strong memory. He could sit in an intelligence briefing and recall information from 6, 8, or 12 months earlier and recite it back almost verbatim. He was a voracious consumer of the information that was provided to him.

I think you can measure our relationship in some of the things we got done in the last year and a half of the administration. I spent the first half of the administration as the hostage envoy at the State Department.

You’ll remember what a major accomplishment the Abraham Accords were that brought peace to Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan and Morrocco. We had economic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo. We negotiated a cease fire between the Kurds and Turks. We negotiated a peace treaty with the Taliban in Afghanistan that is allowing for the withdrawal of troops from that conflict.

We put the focus on the strategic challenge presented by China to the United States, and the threat the Communist Party of China poses to America and our allies. We strengthened the NATO Alliance and strengthened our relationship with Russia.

When you got ready to take this job, who did you reach out to on what you could expect? Is there anyone you leaned on for advice?

One of the people I spoke to was Condi Rice who had the job in the first term of the Bush administration. I worked for her when she was Secretary of State in the Afghanistan division. The first week I was in office she was flying to the U.K. and diverted to Washington and came into my office, which used to be her old office, and we spoke for about two and a half hours. She was extraordinarily generous with her time and counsel and advice.

(Former national security adviser) Stephen Hadley was someone I spoke with on a regular basis who served in the Bush administration.

Henry Kissinger is another person I spoke with anytime I was going overseas or was going to be part of an important negotiation. I spoke with a number of my predecessors, but Henry was someone I spoke with the most.

I also reached out across the aisle and got some great advice from Mack McLarty, who was chief of staff under President Clinton. He’s just a terrific guy. I spoke with Susan Rice, who was Obama’s national security adviser in the second term. I spoke with General Jim Jones, who also served as Obama’s national security adviser.

There was this incredible willingness on behalf of my predecessors to share their thoughts. Everyone was always very careful and respectful to not suggest policies, but they did discuss how they handled various issues.

For the most part, the national security advisers have maintained their security clearance, so we could talk about some of the more complicated issues. It was a true blessing to me that I could receive so much good counsel from my predecessors, both Republicans and Democrats. Whatever their feelings were in regards to President Trump, there was a willingness to help me. They understood the pressures and the demands there are when keeping America safe, and they were very generous with their time and advice.

Do you have any thoughts about President Biden’s announced goal to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by September 11 of this year?

President Trump campaigned on the promise of ending foreign wars. I worked on the Afghanistan issue. I was part of the Afghanistan group in the State Department under the Bush administration and I actually held over briefly in the Obama administration. I have been to Afghanistan a number of times, and the people there are wonderful.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 20 years. The purpose of the initial intervention was to eliminate al Qaeda and the jihadists that would do harm to the United States and deny them safe haven. We expanded the war into nation-building and attempted to install democracy there. A lot of Americans gave their lives and their limbs and suffered terrible wounds helping the people there.

We can’t continue to spend $1 billion to $3 billion a month on this war in Afghanistan. We have a massive geopolitical challenge with China, and they’ve been working to change the balance of power in the Pacific and eventually the world. We have to leave Afghanistan and invest in the great power competition to ensure that America is safe for the next generation against the challenges presented by Russia and China.

You worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. He was roundly mocked when he said Russia was the greatest geopolitical foe of the U.S., but he turned out to be right. Do you think Russia is still America’s greatest geopolitical foe, or is it China, or something we’re not thinking about?

Mitt was right at the time when he said we had a very serious challenge from Russia. He was mocked by President Obama who snarkily said the 80′s are calling and they want their foreign policy back. He was proved right.

As far as the threat we face today, the current threat is a generational threat from China. It’s very significant and a threat like we’ve never faced before in the history of the country. They’re a hard-working people led by the Chinese Communist Party that’s intent on dominating the world. They don’t share our values. They’ve attempted to take over the entire South China Sea and declare it sovereign territory. They are bullying and threatening Taiwan. It’s is a very dangerous situation.

Russia comes into play because there are some things that the Chinese lack, although they are catching up very quickly. The Russians are experts when it comes to space and nuclear weapons and delivery systems. We’re seeing a budding alliance between Russia and China, which is unnatural given their competing territorial claims in their history. When you pair China with Russia, that’s a real challenge for us.