Robert C. O’Brien, Who Covets the Presidency, Builds Ties to the Hindu Right
The president — and his advisors — will depart government this month, but 2024 intrigue galore dominates their final days.
It has been the most tumultuous position in a tumultuous administration.
Even the president’s backers concede Donald Trump’s Achilles’ heel has been his personnel. No position was more convulsive in Trump’s Washington than national security advisor, the seat of Henry Kissinger.
By any reasonable rubric, Trump’s first three picks for the job ended in disaster. Michael Flynn, the hawkish former general who swiftly departed amid a scandal that remains a sore subject among the Trump faithful, was succeeded by H.R. McMaster, another general, who Trump soured on from the start. The naming of John Bolton, a divisive former U.N. ambassador, shocked some of Trump’s supporters who hoped he might make good on his anti-war campaign rhetoric; it would end up being Trump who was most shocked of all, as Bolton became a fixture in the president’s eventual impeachment, as well as the author of a tell-all that urged conservatives against supporting the president’s re-election.
It would have seemed, then, that the position atop the National Security Council under President Trump would be an unenviable one, a poisoned chalice. But as derided as the rogue president remained — and remains — in the Republican old guard, it became impossible to ignore the simple fact that Trump had delivered a beleaguered party to national power, and had firebombed the ranks of its less-flexible cognoscenti.
This dynamic provided the opportunity of a generation for perhaps previously more peripheral figures to enter the center of power. Tucker Carlson became the undisputed king of Fox News and preeminent public intellectual of “Trumpism.” Mike Pence, a failing Indiana governor, became vice president. Mike Pompeo, a backbench flamethrower in the House, became CIA director and then secretary of State. The list goes on.
But maybe add one more: Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s fourth and least famous national security advisor. He took over the job from Bolton in 2019. For his future, O’Brien’s relative lack of profile might matter less than is generally assumed. O’Brien remains in Trump’s good graces, as well as staying in good standing in Washington’s foreign policy community. Gen. Flynn’s profile is an example of the former, but not the latter; Gen. McMaster’s brand is an example of the latter, but not the former. Put simply, to do both is no easy feat.
And come 2024, O’Brien could use this combo — of Trumpian ties, mixed with establishment favor — to seek the presidency.
It’s a prospect that will initially be laughed off, but just as seriously considered by the principal himself. The 2024 Republican field could very possibly exceed the previously record-breaking 2020 Democratic and 2016 GOP slates. This is to say nothing of the Republicans’ rolling identity crisis, and lack of clarity on where more genteel, conventional figures like O’Brien fit in a party with an increasingly outlaw temperament. Yet, as former President Barack Obama often notes, to seek the presidency is in and of itself a testament to extraordinary self-belief. And it’s not like the prognosticators that doubted Obama, and then vociferously doubted Trump, and then even underestimated former Vice President Joe Biden, have a recent track record that commands attention. So, O’Brien is thinking, why not throw his hat in?
No national security advisor has ever sought the presidency, but the prospect of a less officially political figure going for the White House has been building for years. Colin Powell served as NSA in the 1980’s and was heavily courted to run in the 1990’s. The same was true of Condoleeza Rice, the former national security advisor and then-secretary of State who was the subject of serious recruitment efforts in 2008, and then 2012, and even in later cycles.
O’Brien has longstanding ties to Bolton, and I have previously reported that his foreign policy views are described by those who know him as “Bolton lite.” Yet, O’Brien’s good standing in Trump’s court is testament to the fact that the necessary condition of such a feat is based on personal rapport with the president, not the heterodox policy inclinations that originally won Trump the presidency.
Yet, it is probably Bolton who provides the more relevant blueprint for an O’Brien run.
Bolton, like O’Brien a former ambassador (a title he would no doubt flaunt when fundraising and on the stump), considered runs in 2012 and 2016. Bolton built out a political apparatus, including a PAC, that garnered him loyalty among influential, younger hawks, like future Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc. Bolton eventually passed on campaigns, but leveraged the flirtation to higher office in Trump’s administration. This could be part of O’Brien’s thinking: to become secretary of State (a traditional leap from the NSC), or secretary of Defense (which he is said to have coveted earlier in Trump’s presidency), or even vice president on a ticket with a governor with limited foreign policy experience, such as the South Dakota governor and rising star, Kristi Noem.
But, as is said in sports, you play to win the game. There is evidence that O’Brien is trying to do just that, as I’m told he’s lining up quiet conversations with donors, and putting trips to Iowa on the itinerary once the Trump team leaves the White House later this month, however climatically.
O’Brien’s longtime ally, the columnist Hugh Hewitt, all but confirmed the intrigue by naming him recently in the Washington Post as a future candidate. O’Brien has previously worked as a lawyer and Trump’s hostage negotiator. A convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and he is quietly, on relatively good terms with Sen. Mitt Romney and his office. But O’Brien would try to present a Mormonism, unlike the Romney version, that is not anti-Trump.
A central example of O’Brien’s machinations could be seen in his awarding, on Trump’s behalf, of the prestigious Legion of Merit on internationally controversial Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a champion of the Hindu Right. (Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and Australia’s current leader, Scott Morrison, were awarded, as well, in a move to shore the anti-China coalition). But it is Modi who has been most tied to Trumpist politics, with his initial election in 2014 throwing off a near-century of center-left oligopoly in the planet’s largest democracy.
The Modi phenomenon is seen, in retrospect, as heralding an age of populism and nationalism, or the comeback of strongmen internationally, to the critics. There are implications in America. Modi, in Houston, drew the largest gathering in history of a foreign political leader in a September 2019 rally with President Trump, which occurred shortly after O’Brien came to power in Washington. Indian Americans have long been the target of GOP persuasion efforts, and Trump as political figure has been no exception. But most earlier rumblings of prominence for Indian Americans in the Trump administration ended up being dashed, with 2016 Trump backer Shalabh Kumar, the chair of the Republican Hindu Coalition, exhibiting signs of a dyspeptic relationship with the president’s administration and re-election campaign.
But O’Brien, as a presidential candidate, could look to build on apparent GOP gains with Asian Americans in the recent elections. It could become a central plank of his pitch, as prominent for him as his church’s outreach among recent immigrants and in the developing world. A California native, O’Brien could very well attempt to present himself as a bulwark against the variant of liberalism that many see as spoiling the Golden State, that is, the identity politics that would have high-performing high schools shuttered and college admissions convulsed, at the direct expense of many Asian Americans, as well as the tax-and-spend governance choking small business owners and entrepreneurs, many of whom are first or second-generation immigrants.
Above all, O’Brien could also present himself as an anti-communist hardliner, and sell a domestic politics grounded in his experience with national security. China hawkishness is an often popular position among Indian immigrants, whose home country is in an increasing competition with Beijing, as well as with the greater Chinese diaspora, including those hailing from Hong Kong and Taiwan, that generally reject the state approach of mainland China.
O’Brien’s outreach efforts, including for donations among the successful demographic, could be stymied by the rise of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who is of half-Indian descent, and could well be the 2024 Democratic president nominee. But Harris’ politics are more in line with the India of the Congress Party, which has now been overthrown. Combined with Donald Trump’s cult appeal in part of the world’s second largest country, it is too soon to assume Harris’ monolithic dominance among Indian Americans, let alone the greater Asian diaspora. And O’Brien, if he made this effort, could face rivalry with Republican Indian Americans such as Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, or Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor who ran in 2016, if they make their own 2024 White House bids.
O’Brien cut short a recent trip to Europe, where he met with Emmanuel Macron, the French president and another ambitious young man. O’Brien doubtless hopes his next trip to Elysee Palace will be as Macron’s proper opposite. O’Brien’s brand of conservatism, as revealed so far anyway, namely in his treatise, “While America Slept,” has little to give for those in the Republican milieu who would like to move on from Reaganism, toward the economic nationalism begun under Trump, as well as the foreign policy realism and restraint he flirted with, if only in rhetoric. But Republican power this decade is a jump ball — to say nothing of Trump’s lingering ambitions, which complicate anyone’s 2024 path.
But stranger things have happened.