O’Brien himself has remained publicly mum on the subject. But his travel as national security adviser has included a slate of early presidential primary slates, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — an unusual combination for someone in his position. And one of O’Brien’s Republican friends said the trips have “amplified” his interest in running for president.
The chatter reflects the skirmish that is brewing as everyone with a link to Trump vies for supremacy after President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. Trump himself has privately mulled a 2024 comeback, but numerous figures in his orbit — everyone from Vice President Mike Pence to Donald Trump Jr. to Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — have been regularly floated as the GOP’s next standard-bearer.
While Trump’s 2016 run showed political neophytes like O’Brien cannot be completely barred from this conversation, the reality TV star at least had his celebrity to lean on. It’s unclear what O’Brien’s angle would be.
“He’s not terribly well known — I don’t know of any geographic base or ideological base within the party,” said Michael Steel, a former communications aide to both one-time 2016 Republican presidential favorite Jeb Bush and former Republican House Speaker John Boehner. “If he’s running as the heir to President Trump’s national security legacy, I assume there will be other candidates like the vice president or former Ambassador Haley, who would be better positioned to do that. I just have no idea what his lane would be.”
“To run as an outsider is one thing. To run as an unknown, that’s a lot more difficult,” added Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director. “What makes one person stand out when they have zero name ID? … In politics, you never say never, but you often say this is extremely difficult to do.”
Even some GOP strategists who know O’Brien are skeptical. “While his service is admirable, there are other personal traits of his that would not translate well to being president or winning a primary campaign,” said one GOP strategist who declined to speak on the record so as to not damage his relationship with O’Brien.
O’Brien declined to comment on the record for this report.
O’Brien, 54, is a lawyer by trade, but has long moved in Republican and national security circles. During the George W. Bush administration, he was appointed as an alternate representative to the U.N. Later, he co-chaired a State Department initiative meant to use public-private partnerships to promote rule of law in Afghanistan — a role he continued into the Obama era.
O’Brien has also dabbled in presidential politics, serving as a foreign adviser to three Republican candidates — Mitt Romney in 2012, and Scott Walker and Ted Cruz in 2016.
In 2018, O’Brien came to the Trump administration as a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. With the president heavily promoting efforts to secure the release of Americans like pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and rapper ASAP Rocky in Sweden, O’Brien started receiving some public attention. He was installed as Trump’s national security adviser the following year after John Bolton’s acrimonious split from the White House.
O’Brien brought a much lower profile to the National Security Council than his predecessors.
Unlike O’Brien, Bolton was a well-known foreign policy firebrand who had served in the Bush administration and been visible for years on Fox News. Before Bolton, H.R. McMaster had entered the job as a noted military strategist who had led a cavalry force during the Iraq War and written a popular book critiquing the military’s handling of the Vietnam War. And Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was a household name for leading “lock her up” chants during Trump campaign rallies and railing against former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
O’Brien’s arrival was seen as an opportunity to bring in someone who would quietly support the president’s agenda — which he did.
He downsized the NSC staff and trained the council’s focus on China. He defended the president’s moves to withdraw troops from military bases in places like Germany, an effort many national security veterans opposed. And he publicly backed the president’s controversial decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, head of a powerful Iranian military division responsible for many of Tehran’s extrajudicial and secret military operations.
And he often took that support to television, where O’Brien is trusted within the administration to appear on Sunday morning network news shows and popular cable programs to tout the administration’s policies.
Yet O’Brien has also used his perch to visit a number of states critical to the early stages of the presidential primaries. And in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, O’Brien traveled to key presidential swing states like Arizona, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin, sparking chatter that the national security aide was becoming too involved in the political process — a territory traditionally off limits to current foreign policy officials.
There’s some evidence O’Brien did use these trips to enhance his political knowledge. During a September trip to Iowa to speak at Drake University, O’Brien asked a local political consultant to give him a “lay of the land” briefing on the state’s political situation, according to the consultant.
During his travels, O’Brien has gotten a variety of receptions, according to several people who either attended his events or discussed them.
The Republican friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe O’Brien’s travels, said the national security aide had encountered a couple people who told him he “could be interesting four years from now.” But other appearances have been simply ho-hum. And during one October trip to Salt Lake City to speak at a symposium on global peace and stability, O’Brien turned off at least one attendee during a meeting with local faith leaders.
O’Brien, the highest-ranking Mormon member of the Trump administration, had convened the meeting to discuss the administration’s work on religious freedom with local representatives from Episcopal, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish and Muslim congregations.
But just as O’Brien started assuring the group the president was committed to religious tolerance and an ally of all faith communities, he got pushback from Rabbi Sam Spector, who was attending the meeting. Spector recalled pressing O’Brien on how the Trump administration could claim the mantle of religious tolerance when the president had pushed to ban people coming to the U.S. from numerous Muslim-majority countries and had repeatedly been slow to condemn white supremacy.
“He didn’t acknowledge any of my concerns and instead just started saying that what I said was inaccurate and a misrepresentation of facts,” Spector said, describing O’Brien as stunned.
Internally, O’Brien has also faced pushback from some colleagues, including a whistleblower complaint from Yevgeny Vindman, a senior ethics official for the NSC and the twin brother of impeachment witness Alexander Vindman. The complaint alleged both misuse of government resources and “demoralizing sexist behavior” — claims the White House strenuously denied.
Still, those around O’Brien insist he has a demeanor that could play well with voters, noting he also has the advantage of being tied to Trump’s national security platform, which is popular among the president’s base.
“I think he would campaign on American strength, strong families and communities, strong economy and strong national security,” said the Republican friend, calling O’Brien “super-likable.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who knows O’Brien well, argued the national security adviser “would be a very strong contender” and “a very credible presidential candidate” if he chose to get in.
“Robert O’Brien’s one of the most powerful people in Washington, even though he is perhaps not as widely known as he should be given how much influence he has,” Lee said. “You don’t see his name a lot on the front page of the paper, but whenever you do see his name, it’s attached to something very significant.”
O’Brien, his friends argued, could help carry the Republican Party into a new generation and lay claim to being a political outsider, having never held elected office. And, perhaps most important, O’Brien can claim a good relationship with Trump, they added — a key distinction in any fight to take over the GOP base.
“Trump loves O’Brien, and every other conversation where O’Brien comes up, he’ll say, ‘This guy is fantastic and is right out of central casting; he’s beautiful, his wife’s beautiful,’” Lee said.
National security advisers don’t have a long history of entering politics, however. Some, like Susan Rice, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, later rose to Cabinet positions or were floated as presidential or vice presidential aspirants. But none have made the jump into a presidential primary.
Heye, the Republican strategist, reiterated his doubt about O’Brien’s prospects of making the leap.
“You have to have a compelling reason for why you’re running and why it should be you, as opposed to every other person who’s running,” he said.