As President Donald Trump deals with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, he is without a key asset that has served many of his predecessors well during times of crisis: a bold, proactive national security adviser who can flag early threats and ensure the government is focused on combating them, current and former National Security Council officials tell CNN.
Robert O’Brien, Trump’s fourth national security adviser, has been conspicuously out of sight in the administration’s efforts to fight the coronavirus. Rather than helping to lead the response, he has delegated responsibilities to top aides and even bypassed coronavirus task force meetings.
In a rare, in-depth interview, O’Brien acknowledged to CNN that he’s been out of sight from many public events at the White House, but he pushed back on any notion that he’s absent, saying he meets with Trump almost daily to discuss the virus and is in constant contact with foreign allies to coordinate the response.
He did say the administration, as well as much of the world and scientific experts, took time to grasp the severity of the threat.
“Initially, no one understood the magnitude of this crisis,” O’Brien said.
Still, several current administration officials tell CNN there is a growing sense inside the West Wing that O’Brien, a former lawyer and hostage negotiator, is out of his depth in the job and that his desire to keep a low profile inside a prickly White House has undermined his influence with the President – to the point of irrelevance.
As the head of the National Security Council inside the White House, it’s up to the national security adviser to sift through reams of intelligence from across the government in order to flag potential threats to the President early on, and in times of crisis to coordinate a government-wide response.
Instead, O’Brien has taken a back seat in the coronavirus response, and tasked his deputy Matthew Pottinger to take the lead. Well-placed sources inside and outside the administration tell CNN that O’Brien’s low-key approach was particularly problematic during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, a period when, these sources say, he should have been far more aggressive in highlighting the threat of the virus, which was laid out in daily intelligence briefings long before the first American died of the disease.
The administration’s early response to the virus has been widely criticized as slow and disjointed, and marred by mistakes such as faulty test kits produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that took weeks to fix and allowed the virus to spread undetected.
In his interview with CNN, O’Brien insisted that senior national security officials have been on top of the coronavirus from early on, meeting daily to discuss the virus beginning in mid-January. O’Brien said he first briefed the President on the potential domestic threat it posed on January 23 and that he remains in daily contact with Trump on the fast-moving situation.
“We don’t believe we should be out front in the news,” O’Brien told CNN, adding that it is not his personal style to make a lot of news. “We want to give quiet advice.”
O’Brien takes credit for getting Dr. Deborah Birx, a top State Department global health official, to join the coronavirus task force as the response coordinator. But that move did not happen until late February, when Vice President Mike Pence had already been put in charge.
Yet many around Washington believe that when it comes to the coronavirus, O’Brien’s advice has been too quiet, and too reactive. One person familiar with how O’Brien is perceived by officials inside the White House called him, “The least influential national security adviser ever.”
A senior Republican official familiar with the White House task force added that O’Brien was not involved with any of the calls or meetings one would expect the national security adviser to be on and that his absence was “inconceivable” during a pandemic.
“The [national security adviser] should be running a national security task force, and instead what we have are uncoordinated, shooting-from-the-hip decisions on tactical issues,” said Samantha Vinograd, who was a senior adviser to Tom Donilon when he was President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.
“Historically you would see the national security adviser being in on this action, really, since day one,” said John Gans Jr., a former chief Pentagon speechwriter and author of the book “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.”
“I think there’s a lot of people in Washington who are just like: Where’s the national security adviser been in all this?”
Executing over influencing
O’Brien arrives at the White House each morning at 9 a.m., far later than his predecessors, having spent the early morning at home reading newspapers and speaking to the President and NSC staffers. As of Monday, O’Brien will have a SCIF, a secure room for reviewing classified or other highly sensitive information, installed in his home.
In the interim, he uses a secure phone line at home, and an armored SUV with a secure phone when out of the office, at times taking some of his more sensitive calls outside his house in the SUV.
Having no SCIF at home has meant that O’Brien often accesses the top secret Presidential Daily Briefings later than most of his predecessors. But since Trump himself doesn’t come down from the White House residence until after 10 a.m., O’Brien said a later schedule jibes better with the boss.
O’Brien attends the intelligence briefing with Trump, but details of how he interacts with the President in that setting remain unclear, and he did not elaborate during his interview with CNN.
Previous national security advisers viewed getting the intelligence in the Presidential Daily Briefings to the President – in any way they could – as essential to their job, said Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year veteran of the intelligence community. President Richard Nixon may not have even gotten the coveted intelligence at all were it not for his influential national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, said Pfeiffer.
“That’s the job. You need to be able to see the whole field because the President doesn’t have time to do it,” said Gans.
In many ways, O’Brien lives in the shadow of his predecessor John Bolton, a veteran policy adviser notorious for his voracious, predawn consumption of intelligence and information. Bolton left the White House last September following an acrimonious split with the President. O’Brien chose early on to take a different approach and has maintained an unusually low profile given his title, according to several administration officials. He has tended to focus on executing the President’s wishes, rather than influencing them.
“Robert’s shtick is ‘I am a staffer. … My purpose is not to tell the President what his agenda is,’ ” an administration official said. “He’ll start by deferring to the President’s stated opinions.”
Earlier this year, O’Brien told CNN that Trump gets advice from his advisers but ultimately “makes his own decisions.”
That’s a stark contrast to how Bolton operated. A seasoned Washington infighter, the pugnacious Bolton was known to arrive at the office around 6 a.m. and for being an effective and eager debater, which sometimes led to heated discussions with Trump and the rest of the national security team.
“Bolton is a hard guy to follow,” said a source familiar with internal White House dynamics. “With John Bolton there was incredible depth on just about every issue because he read so much and absorbed so much intelligence.”
O’Brien is also seen by some as lacking Bolton’s political savvy, which was bolstered by his longtime connections to Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Still, O’Brien is viewed as having a closer relationship with the President’s family, particularly Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
The timing of O’Brien’s arrival in the White House has not helped him, showing up as he did amid revelations that a member of the intelligence community had filed a whistleblower complaint over Trump’s call with the President of Ukraine. Having several members of the National Security Council testify during the impeachment proceedings sullied the council’s reputation in Trump’s eyes, according to two current administration officials.
O’Brien “came into an impossible situation,” another administration official said, noting the President’s displeasure with the NSC, which he viewed as the source of his impeachment problems.
But while O’Brien found other ways to make his mark, serving as an influential voice during the Qassem Soleimani strike and the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid – both of which the administration views as major successes – his influence has been muted as the pandemic has moved front and center.
Deferring to his deputy
Early on, O’Brien tasked his deputy, Pottinger, to lead the National Security Council’s effort to combat the virus. O’Brien told CNN that Pottinger was an obvious choice to lead the charge for the council. A former Marine and an Asia expert, Pottinger covered the SARS outbreak in China as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in the early 2000s. O’Brien says that by delegating to Pottinger, he’s been freed up to oversee other non-virus threats, such as Iran’s recent aggression.
O’Brien says he and Pottinger are in constant communication over the coronavirus. “I am lucky to have a deputy to engage on this issue,” O’Brien said. “He knows the issues extraordinarily well.” O’Brien says he still personally briefs Trump on coronavirus news.
From the outset, Pottinger proposed taking a tough response against China for its failures to warn the world earlier about the virus and the risk of contagion. He pushed for travel restrictions on China and for labeling the virus the “Wuhan virus.”
Pottinger also reached out to allies in pursuit of personal protective equipment and other supplies desperately needed by the US. At his behest, Taiwan donated hundreds of thousands of surgical masks to the US, according to two administration officials, who confirmed an earlier report by The Washington Post. But thousands of those masks were then set aside for White House staffers, these people said, raising questions about the initiative amid reports of a national shortage.
In the eyes of his national security colleagues, Pottinger’s efforts were effective and smart. But West Wing colleagues viewed them as politically misguided and problematic. “He’s losing allies,” one administration official said of Pottinger.
Carving out a role
Part of O’Brien’s challenge is that he appears to have had a hard time carving out a role for himself, according to current and former administration officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who routinely clashed with Bolton, runs foreign policy, and intelligence runs through Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, and Gina Haspel, the CIA director. Trump regularly meets with top officials from all the other departments at the task force meetings, raising questions about what it is that O’Brien does on coronavirus.
Vacancies have also hurt the White House’s response to the virus. One former senior administration official said that as the coronavirus outbreak spread into the US, the absence of an empowered homeland security adviser likely contributed to the administration’s failure to grasp the magnitude of the outbreak.
After Tom Bossert was pushed out of the job in 2018, the role was never really filled in its original form, according to several former administration officials. There were people who still had similar titles but with far less influence.
Compounding the problem, according to a former senior administration official, was that O’Brien was mainly focused on foreign policy matters that interested the President, such as the maximum pressure campaign against Iran, not security threats to the homeland, like a potential pandemic.
The role of homeland security adviser proved crucial to the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and during the outbreak of Ebola in late 2014.
John Brennan, who was then Obama’s homeland security adviser and eventually became CIA director, led the government’s interagency response to the swine flu. Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, reported directly to Obama and his then-national security adviser, Susan Rice, during the Ebola outbreak, according to a former Obama administration official who was involved in the response.
Both Monaco and Rice regularly attended task force meetings on Ebola, including those that involved protecting the homeland, the official said.
At the time, the National Security Council “understood there was a very close relationship between what was happening outside the United States and what was happening inside the United States, and we always had a very integrated strategy that had to involve our domestic tools and international response,” this person said.
Still, CNN has confirmed that Trump’s Presidential Daily Briefings made note of the growing crisis as early as January, a story first reported by The Washington Post. But publicly, Trump continued to dismiss the severity of the threat well into February and early March.
Countless Trump advisers, past and present, have said that the President doesn’t give his Presidential Daily Briefings a close read and it is generally up to his top advisers to flag important issues to him. The onus, therefore, according to several former national security officials who spoke with CNN, was on O’Brien to fill the gaps.
“He’s got to help connect the dots within government and help connect the dots between the information,” said Gans, the former Pentagon speechwriter and author. “This is the first major crisis of the post-World War II era where the NSC really hasn’t been operating and engaging at full capacity.”
CNN’s Dana Bash, Alex Marquardt, Zachary Cohen, Jamie Gangel and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.