O’Brien’s effectiveness has dovetailed well with the president’s focus and priorities, but that isn’t the sole reason for his being selected. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supported O’Brien’s promotion to the key role. So did many other veterans of the national security establishment that’s best described as “Reagan peace through strength” conservatives with a pedigree that dates to the era of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. They have an understanding of the national security adviser’s job that is best traced to Henry Kissinger’s transformational tenure in the position under Richard M. Nixon.
I should note that O’Brien is a close friend of mine, a former law partner at two different firms, a frequent guest on my radio show dating back more than a decade, and a collaborator on various essays and columns on national security. (I retired from the active practice of law in the summer of last year while continuing to teach constitutional law at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law.) I wrote the foreword for O’Brien’s 2016 book “While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis.” When others praise the selection, they will make similar disclosures. At various times in the past, O’Brien has advised Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), among others. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is a longtime friend, as are countless people in California politics and national security circles.
In making this choice, Trump is relying not only on O’Brien’s established ability to work well with the president and the secretary of state, but also on his skills honed by decades of representing diverse clients in complex litigation and arbitration before both international and domestic courts. When the president is making decisions, he needs someone with great capacity and integrity who can organize and present a variety of facts and opinions while making persuasive arguments on behalf of allies and other officials not in the room. That describes O’Brien. He has also managed law firms where partnerships of large egos are often arenas of competing ambitions and agendas.
A wide-ranging reader (and a student especially of Winston Churchill), O’Brien is probably best known as a “navalist” — proponents of Trump’s goal of a 355-ship Navy have another friend in the West Wing now. O’Brien can be counted on to continually remind everyone that Trump has spoken on behalf of rapid expansion of the fleet. Having toured a ship engine-drive production plant with O’Brien, I know he’s schooled in industrial-base realities as well as top-line goals for the Navy.
O’Brien has toured crisis-torn countries, such as Afghanistan, Ukraine and Georgia, as an election observer and as a diplomat. He worked alongside John Bolton at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, and most recently he has traveled the globe on Trump’s behalf to free Americans wrongly held by foreign entities. Trump’s priority of getting Americans home became O’Brien’s passion. The families of those Americans imprisoned abroad know that the new national security adviser shares the president’s and secretary of state’s commitment — unusual in recent U.S. diplomatic history — to bringing those hostages home without creating incentives for the capturing of Americans abroad.
Trump has been advocated rebuilding the military and arming U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with the best and most lethal weaponry. Even a cursory reading of O’Brien’s published work will show he has long argued for the same thing. Like Ronald Reagan before him, Trump is not quick to dive into entanglements abroad — he is not a “neoconservative” on national security matters but the old-fashioned sort of conservative. Mirroring his boss in that regard, O’Brien is in the classic mold of serious, experienced, historically literate national security specialists.
O’Brien is not as high-profile as many of his predecessors, but he is well known among the rising generation in the national security community. He has mentored many of its members over the past two decades. There is a tradition in national security circles, as there is in the military, of such conscious development of the next generation.
With the selection of a competent, fair and intelligent aide to assist in the execution of the administration’s policies, Trump has made a confidence-building choice in a time of rising international tensions.