The O’Brien Factor
Days after January 6, 2021, Robert C. O’Brien invited me to the White House.
Then-President Donald Trump’s fourth national security advisor, O’Brien was the least famous of the men who occupied the seat of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft during the 45th president’s tumultuous, at-times ecstatic, but then tragically concluded term in office. O’Brien’s three predecessors—Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster, and John Bolton—were career military men or notorious hawks in the national security space, or both.
My previous coverage had included breaking the stories of Bolton’s imminent hiring, and then firing, as well as laying out what we knew about O’Brien. In January 2018, O’Brien pal Hugh Hewitt had asked then Trump administration senior official Michael Anton about my reporting on McMaster’s imminent ouster live on his radio show, but I had never dealt with O’Brien.
So, as Trump became the first president in history to be impeached for a second time, I sat in his office on a cold January 2021 afternoon—for both Washington, D.C., and the Republican Party. “Well, will you look at that,” was the refrain as the votes from the House were tallied, in one of my most surreal memories from Trump’s invasion of Washington.
And yet, eight months after Trump’s ejection from power and within a GOP undergoing an identity crisis perhaps unrivaled since its founding in the 1850’s, it is O’Brien—who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump in the most difficult and surprising crisis of his presidency—who is at the center of Republican power, more than any of his predecessors. And the former national security advisor has emerged an eminently plausible presidential candidate in his own right.
Those who know him concede: O’Brien’s approach is lower-key, and far more behind-the-scenes than the figures that Trump ordinarily attracts. But this also makes it less likely that his relationship with Trump will suddenly blow up. As of this writing, O’Brien is still the least famous of Trump’s NSA’s, but he has outstripped, certainly, his predecessors: Flynn (last seen involved in anti-jab activism), McMaster (last seen defending the Afghanistan war, whole hog), and Bolton (last seen defending conservative bete noire Mark Milley and trying to eradicate Trump from the GOP entirely).
So, unlike McMaster and Bolton, O’Brien has shored up his Republican bonafides, and unlike Flynn, he’s avoided the dark.
In recent weeks, I’m reliably told that O’Brien and his business partner, the former Trump official Alex Gray, have made the rounds in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, meeting other Republicans crafting a strategy to win back Congress and limit the Democratic grip on the White House to four short years. His “Building Peace Through Strength” summit was attended by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, and rising stars Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida and Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin. With a possible eye to 2024, former South Carolina GOP party chair Van Hipp was in attendance, as well.
Additional items on his calendar have included a Washington fundraiser for J.D. Vance, running for Senate in Ohio. The backing of Trump’s “wartime consigliere” has given Vance some cover from those who doubt his Trumpist sincerity, and is, for the time being anyway, the blue-chip endorsement of the race, absent an intervention from the big man himself. And, preeminently, O’Brien has built an alliance with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. O’Brien, a fellow Californian and a hotshot former Los Angeles trial lawyer, has known and cultivated that friendship since McCarthy’s more anonymous days in the California State Assembly. If all goes according to the dream, it would be a partnership fulfilled in power between Capitol Hill and 1600 Penn, with McCarthy as the next House Speaker, and O’Brien as, you know.
O’Brien’s political power is potentially anchored in his Mormonism; he converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a young man. As Evangelical power continues to relatively decline, and as anti-Trump stalwarts such as Sen. Mitt Romney fade from the scene, it’s not implausible to imagine such an association being a crucial consideration at a brokered Republican National Convention, or on a presidential ticket.
O’Brien is less tied to Trump (and his wrath) than former Vice President Mike Pence, and he is less pugnacious and neoconservative-friendly in approach than are former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. The latter two have their own problems with Trump. Pompeo was quietly left off a list of favored successors by Trump earlier this year, and Haley is continually ripped by Trump in the press. “Every time she criticizes me,” Trump said recently of the former South Carolina governor, “she uncriticizes me about 15 minutes later.”
For now, O’Brien appears to be learning from the current occupant of the White House as much as from Trump.
Over a long career in Washington, Biden has become famous as a master of his party’s consensus, whatever it is that day. Over a short career in Washington, O’Brien has shown similar adroitness, cultivating the old guard and reaching out to enterprising young reporters from Pat Buchanan’s magazine alike. A recent speaking venue, the Kissingerian think tank Center for the National Interest (my old employer), was the same locale that Trump spoke to as he consolidated his grip on the Republican Party in spring 2016. Interestingly, for geeks of Republican history, O’Brien has entrenched ties with the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in recent months. Meanwhile, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who is weighing a Trump-confrontational comeback, spoke at the Ronald Reagan Library, also in California.
Still, avoiding overtly picking a side when possible can have its downsides, with conservative populist television host Saagar Enjeti and Twitter pugilist Richard Hanania both recently ripping O’Brien for his briefing to Capitol Hill Republicans in which he is said to have urged military moves in Poland to shore up ally anxieties over the exodus in Afghanistan. This is credibly argued to be an example of the old, failed medicine in foreign affairs.
Still, in presentation, O’Brien is a mixture of now-President Biden and his lieutenant, Vice President Kamala Harris. Like Biden, O’Brien is a glad-hander, passionate about foreign affairs, and also tragically lost a child. Like Harris, he is a telegenic, West Coast reprieve from septuagenarian reign.
Certainly, there have been stranger figures to grasp the brass ring.