Top Trump Aide O’Brien Shadowed in Asia by U.S. Election Tumult
(Bloomberg) -- A few days before National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien left for a high-profile tour of southeast Asia, President Donald Trump delivered some news to him, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office.
Trump planned to run for president again in 2024, he told the men, if he couldn’t overturn his Nov. 3 defeat by Joe Biden.
“If you do that -- and I think I speak for everybody in the room -- we’re with you 100 percent,” O’Brien responded, according to two people briefed on the conversation. Pompeo and Pence, who are both regarded as contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination, smiled but said nothing, the people said.
The exchange ten days after the election captured the tension as Trump’s most senior advisers navigated the president’s refusal to accept his election loss and the reality of his administration coming to an end. It also highlighted their choice between standing with the most dominant political force the Republican party has seen in a generation and breaking loose to position themselves for their own White House runs.
Pence has kept a low profile in the wake of the election. But just hours after the Nov. 13 Oval Office encounter, Pompeo embarked on a ten-day tour through Europe and the Middle East, making his own headlines as he managed to offend several U.S. allies as well as Palestinian leaders.
O’Brien slipped town five days later, after making his own election-related stumble. Asked at a Nov. 16 security forum about the formal transition to Biden’s presidency, delayed as Trump fought the election outcome, O’Brien responded: “If the Biden-Harris ticket is determined to be the winner -- and obviously, things look that way now -- we’ll have a very professional transition with the National Security Council, no doubt about it.”
Some of Trump’s advisers half-joked among themselves that O’Brien was lucky he hadn’t been “Esper’ed,” a reference to former defense secretary Mark Esper, fired by Trump via tweet days after the election, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Spokespeople the National Security Council and State Department declined to comment.
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said: “We do not comment on Oval Office meetings. People who do are often incorrect.”
In Asia, O’Brien’s trip drew criticism from no one but the Chinese, though the leaders he met found themselves dancing around the awkward issue of the U.S. election, which Trump has yet to concede.
Despite lacking the national profile of Pompeo or Pence, O’Brien fueled speculation about his 2024 prospects with national security speeches this year in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first votes will be cast in the next Republican primary. He also delivered addresses in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Maine -- all key states Trump was seeking to win.
“It’s silly season in Washington,” O’Brien told reporters traveling with him to Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, when asked on Monday whether he was considering a run. “I’m happy with my current job, and looking forward to going back to the private sector.”
But he allowed that “people send me text messages and emails” about a potential race.
O’Brien is Trump’s fourth national security adviser. Unlike the two men who preceded him, John Bolton and H.R. McMaster, O’Brien has shown no independence from the president. On occasion, he has gone so far as to help rid the White House of officials perceived as not sufficiently protective of the Trump political agenda.
In February, the president was angered that word had leaked to reporters that an intelligence official had told Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and other lawmakers in a classified briefing that Russia had developed “a preference” for re-electing Trump. O’Brien cast some of the blame on one of the point people for congressional briefings, National Security Council’s legislative affairs senior director, Virginia Boney.
When Boney pushed for another scheduled congressional briefing on election interference in March to go forward, O’Brien had her reassigned outside the White House. Boney, who later took a new post at the Commerce Department, declined to comment.
O’Brien’s allies include other Trump loyalists -- Meadows, former director of national intelligence Ric Grenell and trade adviser Peter Navarro.
Tension is sometimes just below the surface between Pompeo and O’Brien. And the national security adviser has occasionally clashed with Mnuchin, though they largely get along.
In March, after Mnuchin argued in an Oval Office meeting against suspending travel from Europe to contain the spread of coronavirus, O’Brien told him in a raised voice “you’re going to single-handedly cause this virus to spread in the United States,” according to people briefed on the meeting.
A Treasury spokeswoman declined to discuss the specifics of any Oval Office meeting but said that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and O’Brien have an excellent relationship. O’Brien, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the report and on any of his Oval Office conversations.
O’Brien’s trip to Asia came at a delicate moment in the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. outbreak is again surging, with the country recording more than 140,000 new cases a day the week of his departure.
Vietnam, by comparison, has reported just over 1,300 cases since the pandemic began. Some Trump advisers remarked that there may have been more cases just in the president’s orbit -- including the president himself, and most recently, his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
O’Brien’s Vietnamese hosts regarded their guest and his entourage as human petri dishes and restricted the delegation to a single floor of the luxurious Metropole hotel in Hanoi. Room service meals were left outside the U.S. guests’ doors, and Vietnamese officials in head-to-toe protective gear administered virus tests.
The Air Force flight crew on O’Brien’s plane wasn’t allowed to stay in the country; the aircraft was sent to Thailand while the national security adviser conducted his business in Vietnam.
The caution proved astute. Later, on the Philippines leg of the trip, one crew member developed a fever and tested positive for coronavirus. The crewman and two National Security Council aides who had been near them isolated themselves at a hotel in Manila, and O’Brien’s plane left for the U.S. without them. NSC aides were alerted Wednesday morning that two more crew members have Covid-19.
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Officials in the Philippines weren’t as strict, but required O’Brien’s team, immediately after they deplaned, to follow the government mandate on wearing plastic face shields over masks in indoor public spaces.
Unlike Pompeo, who didn’t take any questions from reporters traveling with him in Europe and the Middle East, O’Brien held three news conferences and regularly briefed the reporters on his plane, including one from Bloomberg News.
But he spoke carefully, joking at one point to the journalists that he didn’t want a “McChrystal moment.” O’Brien wanted to be on plane for the trip home, his spokesman John Ullyot teased.
A 2010 Rolling Stone profile of the then-head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, documented him and his staff disparaging Obama administration officials and Biden, then the vice president, while on an overseas trip. McChrystal was fired.
“I will say on the record: I will never criticize the president,” O’Brien added.
In O’Brien’s public remarks throughout the trip, he was critical of China. He vowed continued U.S. support for Taiwan, faulted Beijing for aggression toward neighboring countries in the South China Sea, and accused China of pilfering maritime resources that belong to Filipinos and the Vietnamese.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila said in a statement that O’Brien “blatantly accused China on no ground, grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, deliberately exaggerated regional tensions and attempted to sow discord between China and the Philippines.”
In Hanoi, despite their concerns he might infect them, O’Brien was met warmly by Vietnam’s leaders.
During a private meeting with Vietnam’s Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the prime minister told O’Brien: “We all have masks on but I wish we could share our smiles,” according to Kimberly Reed, the head of the Export-Import Bank, who accompanied him on the trip.
The two men have some history. Phuc was one of the few world leaders who didn’t snub O’Brien after Trump sent him in his stead to a major summit, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in Bangkok last year.
Most countries organized a boycott of sorts, dispatching a foreign minister or some other lower-ranking official to meet with O’Brien instead of their head of state.
But O’Brien showed his touch for diplomacy. He had come to the summit with thick envelopes, hand-addressed in calligraphy, inviting the heads of state to a dinner with Trump in Las Vegas. When they sent emissaries to pick up their invitations, O’Brien declined, insisting that Trump had instructed him to deliver them personally.
All of the top foreign leaders at the summit ended up meeting with O’Brien.
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