The next day, Trump appointed his hostage czar to one of the top roles in the White House, bringing a State Department official with about a year’s worth of hostage negotiation experience into a job with a wide and difficult portfolio.
While some Americans have been brought home under O’Brien’s watch, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was held in Turkey for two years, several others are still held abroad. They include six U.S. oil executives being detained in Venezuela and Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and Marine Corps veteran who was abducted in Syria in 2012 and is now believed to be held by the Syrian government or allied forces.
O’Brien, who was tapped as the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs last year, is only the second person to fill that role, which was created by the Obama administration in 2015. A founding partner at a Los Angeles law firm, he previously worked for a State Department program that helped train Afghan lawyers and judges.
He drew attention to his role this summer when he traveled to Stockholm to monitor American rapper A$AP Rocky’s trial there, provoking criticism from some who saw it as an overstep in an allied nation.
But the Tice family said Wednesday that in their son’s case, O’Brien has proved a steadfast ally in their fight to bring him home after more than seven years.
“We think it’s wonderful that Robert, who has a tremendous commitment to Austin, who has worked hard to bring him home, is elevated to a position where he can help bring this to a positive conclusion,” Debra Tice, Austin’s mother, told The Washington Post by phone from Houston.
“It’s also great we have such a good relationship with him,” she said, describing O’Brien as routinely available for phone calls and emails — a rare occurrence for Washington officials surrounded by aides and staff members. “We know he’s a good man. He’s been a great addition to Austin’s team so far.”
O’Brien picked up Tice’s case soon after he started in his State Department role in May 2018. In November, he said the Tice family’s courage and determination “inspired me in my day-to-day work not just for Austin but for all the hostages.”
“The United States government believes Austin Tice is alive,” he said at the time. “We are deeply concerned about his well-being after six years in captivity.”
Now it’s unclear what role, if any, O’Brien will continue to play in hostage negotiations once he moves to the White House.
Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who previously served as senior adviser to national security adviser Susan E. Rice during the Obama administration, said that even if O’Brien remains personally committed to his hostage portfolio, he will probably find it hard to make time for it once he takes on a new, complex set of responsibilities as one of Trump’s top advisers.
But Schulman said that it “is a really important development to have a national security adviser who is aware of the complexity of hostage negotiations and all the many elements and sensitivities that go into it.”
Schulman said that O’Brien’s background working on complicated cases with hostile governments could make him a strong partner for Trump if he decides to open or continue negotiations with countries like Iran and North Korea. And if O’Brien does decide to intervene on specific hostage cases, he could have an advantage now that he has moved into such a prominent role.
“There are times when the national security adviser can make a phone call to a counterpart in another country and get through immediately in a time when it may matter in any sensitive negotiation,” she said.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on who will replace O’Brien in his current role.
Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said there has been “a lot more movement” on Tice’s case since O’Brien took up the hostage portfolio last fall.
Still, he said, Tice’s family and friends “have publicly indicated several times that there is space for more to be done within this government and also by allies in the media.”
The mission to free Tice, now 38, is an unfinished chapter written across two administrations, and his captivity has become one of the longest ever endured by an American.
Tice, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and Georgetown Law student, reported on the Syrian civil war for several news outlets before he was captured, including McClatchy and The Post.
His combat experience helped produce insightful stories on the tactics of rebels and Syrian troops, including an observation that government pilots may have sympathized with the opposition and intentionally missed their targets. He later shared in a George Polk Award with his colleagues for their coverage in Syria.
Tice was abducted on Aug. 14, 2012, as he tried to travel to Lebanon after three months in Syria. There has been no reliable claim of responsibility for his abduction, although a video released shortly after Austin went missing purported to show a rebel group threatening to execute him. The authenticity of the video has not been confirmed.
Debra Tice and her husband, Marc, have crisscrossed the region in the years since, buoyed by their optimism that their son will ultimately be freed.
In December, the family said they received new information about his status — prompted by the FBI’s $1 million reward matched by media organizations — that bolstered their belief he is alive, though they did not say what information they received.
The Tice family will also marshal efforts on Sept. 23 on Capitol Hill, where a wave of volunteers will appeal to lawmakers and ensure broad government attention on Austin’s captivity.
“Our optimism remains unchanged,” Debra Tice said, bristling at the idea of using “still alive” to describe her son.
“We don’t ever say ‘still,’ ” she said. “We say Austin is alive.”
Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.