Trump Picks O'Brien To Replace Bolton As National Security Adviser
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So how do you prepare for one of the most important jobs in the White House, especially if your role has been defined in the past by turnover and disorganization? That's the challenge facing Robert O'Brien, President Trump's choice to replace John Bolton as his national security adviser. President Trump was impressed by O'Brien's work for him as chief hostage negotiator.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, I think we have a very good chemistry together, and I think we're going to have a great relationship.
GREENE: I want to bring in someone who is very familiar with working on a national security team in the White House. It's Juan Zarate today to weigh in on and give us his perspective on this choice. Zarate served as deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush. He's with us in our studios in Washington. Thanks for coming in.
JUAN ZARATE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So Robert O'Brien, one thing that strikes me is his background seems a bit more legal, diplomatic, less national security specifically. Could that color his approach to this job?
ZARATE: I think it will affect his approach to the job. You know, Robert's not an ideologue, nor is he a novice. But he hasn't been part of the deep national security teams of the past. He hasn't been a longtime diplomat or a Department of Defense official. He hasn't served in the NSC itself.
And so this is going to be a challenge for him to get accustomed to working in that job to coordinate the national security team at the senior-most levels to run the staff internally for the president and ultimately to provide the president the best advice possible. This is a challenge for anybody, but certainly now with the challenges not only within the White House but internationally with all the crises that are brewing.
GREENE: Are you worried that it's too much of a challenge, I mean, just for the sake of not having that kind of experience that you might need for some of the tough things you're talking about?
ZARATE: Well, the good news is the president is familiar with Robert. I think one of the things that the president and his team around him were looking for was somebody that the president had some chemistry with. We've even heard the president talk about chemistry he has with Robert.
GREENE: Yeah, we just heard that.
ZARATE: Exactly. The good news as well is he's had the role of the hostage envoy. That is to say, he's been helping with hostage policy coordinating, that the advantage there is it touches so many different issues - Iran, North Korea, terrorism. And it has allowed him to work with the Department of Defense, the intelligence community.
So it's not like he's coming to the National Security Council cold. But he isn't sort of seasoned, I think, in running the Situation Room and certainly being at the core of national security decision-making. And I think we're in the season of decision-making, given what's happening with Iran, North Korea, Syria, negotiations with the Taliban and obviously the long-term conflict and challenge with China.
GREENE: OK. So you have President Trump saying he fired John Bolton at this time when he is facing a crisis, among other things, with Iran and maybe some very important decisions to make. Is he looking for something that different, though? Because, you know, O'Brien worked with Bolton, has actually cited some of his views. Are we going to see some change in policy or some different kind of decision that we might not have had under John Bolton?
ZARATE: Well, it's a great question. I think the good news is Robert clearly has the confidence of the president. He has the confidence of Secretary of State Pompeo, who plays a leading role, I think, in advising the president on foreign policy issues. And I think that plays obviously to Robert's benefit and to the benefit of the process.
A core question for any national security adviser is how much is the national security adviser shaping policy with his own views or her own views and how much is the national security adviser simply an exponent of the president's policies and viewpoints. Ultimately, an ideal national security adviser is culling together, pulling together the best advice the best views from throughout the government, presenting those views to the president and allowing him to make a good decision.
But this is a president that obviously shifts views very quickly, has a hyper-personalized approach to diplomacy. And I think Robert's going to have an interesting time corralling the president and corralling the interagency process.
GREENE: Yeah. What is your approach? What is your advice to him to corral a president who does seem to change his mind and go his own way...
GREENE: ...Despite whatever advice he might be getting?
ZARATE: I'm not sure anybody can take my advice. But I think you've got to certainly listen to the president's instincts. You know, this is a president, for example, on China that is doing things that both sides of the aisle like and approve of in terms of confronting China in certain ways. People may not approve of the actual tactics. But I think listening to the president's instincts, understanding where he wants to go and then getting the best advice as to how to shape that and how to shape strategy.
A challenge for Robert as well is you're coming toward the end of the term. And that obviously accelerates the decision-making that has to happen. It also forces the institutionalization of strategies and policies for the next president or the next term of a Trump administration.
GREENE: So O'Brien has a foreign policy book to his name from a few years ago titled "While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership To A World In Crisis." Do we learn anything from it about his take on, you know, America's place in the world right now?
ZARATE: I think we know a couple things. One, he's very critical of the prior administration, the Obama administration, felt like we were retreating from the world. We have heard even in his recent statements a strategy of peace through strength. I think he plays down the middle. He's a classic conservative Republican, foreign policy type.
And I think that will perhaps conflict with some of the president's instincts, perhaps play into some of the policies. But it certainly is coincident with Secretary of State Pompeo and some of the prior views that the national security team has presented to the president.
GREENE: Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser in the White House, now chairman of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Thanks for being with us.
ZARATE: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.