It was not clear who the quote came from, given it was not previously public, but the White House attributed it to O’Brien. The State Department would only confirm it anonymously, in a statement attributed to an unnamed spokesperson, who said, “We confirm.”
That Trump might have embellished the quote is certainly plausible; he has a history of making up quotes and hyperbolizing actual ones. But O’Brien’s public comments about Trump’s hostage-negotiating skills were only slightly less effusive.
“The president has had unparalleled success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges, but through force of will and the goodwill that he’s generated around the world,” O’Brien said at the time.
O’Brien’s commentary on Trump during the 2016 election, when he advised the campaigns of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), was not quite so friendly. At one point, he urged Cruz to draw a contrast on national security with Trump, who “has been playing up how chummy he will be with Vladimir Putin if he is elected.” O’Brien also expressed reservations about Trump, saying he “talks about his love for the military and our veterans, but he has also made troubling statements about cutting the defense budget.” (Trump has, in fact, increased the defense budget as president.)
Once Trump was elected, though, O’Brien was quick to hail him — even before he was inaugurated. O’Brien’s December 2016 column about Trump’s early forays into diplomacy was headlined as if it were written expressly for the Audience of One: “Trump Just Keeps Winning: America’s Allies Are Boosting Defense Spending.”
In the piece, O’Brien credited Trump with getting NATO members to talk about contributing more to the alliance simply because of his campaign rhetoric and force of will. Even as Trump’s transition was racked by chaos in a variety of areas, O’Brien proclaimed, “We may be witnessing the most impressive presidential transition from a national-security standpoint in history.”
The piece concluded:
During the campaign, Trump would often say at his rallies that “we’re going to win so much that you’ll get tired of winning.” At least with respect to our allies bearing their fair share of the defense burden, he may very well have been right.
O’Brien was most recently in the news when Trump dispatched him to Sweden to try to ensure the return of American rapper A$AP Rocky, who was accused of assault. When it was noted that this was an unusual task for a hostage negotiator — given the rapper was not being held hostage — O’Brien defended Trump’s decision to send him. He even suggested it was okay simply because Trump decided it was okay.
“The president sent me here, so it’s totally appropriate,” he said, adding, “I also help free people that are held by governments ... so unjustly detained Americans.”
Asked whether he had ever been sent to monitor a criminal case, O’Brien doubled down and suggested Sweden was actually kind of holding the rapper hostage. “When foreign governments hold Americans, they always claim it’s a criminal case,” he said.
That O’Brien has said nice things about Trump and toed Trump’s line is hardly a knock against him. What is notable here is the hyperbole and the apparent willingness to go to great lengths to justify Trump’s actions. This is the lead hostage negotiator in the U.S. government — someone who knows the subject matter intensely — hailing Trump as the greatest hostage negotiator in U.S. history. That is subjective, of course, but it is extremely high praise for someone with no formal training in this field. Indeed, it is the kind of praise Trump would heap on himself. He often claims to know more than anybody in history about subjects he has no expertise in.
The fact that O’Brien is apparently willing to own that quote should tell you plenty about what kind of national security adviser he will be. Trump’s inner circle is trending toward yes-men and -women and those who strain to praise him the hardest. O’Brien seems to be someone from the latter camp. That does not necessarily mean, of course, that he will be in the former, but it does suggest how he might approach disagreements.