Trump taps Pompeo ally Robert O’Brien to replace John Bolton

September 18, 2019

President Donald Trump has picked his man to replace John Bolton.

The president named hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien, a close ally of Mike Pompeo at the State Department, to succeed his hawkish former National Security adviser, according to Reuters. O’Brien’s appointment does not require confirmation.

The announcement comes nearly a week after Trump unceremoniously fired Bolton in a tweet. Bolton’s ouster prompted fevered speculation about the future of Trump’s foreign policy: Bolton’s hawkishness on Iran and other policy matters was a source of disagreement with Trump, who campaigned on ending the kinds of foreign engagements that Bolton enthusiastically supports.

Trump taps “Bolton lite”

Many in Trump’s base hoped that Trump would select a less conventional adviser from outside “The Swamp” to help end foreign wars and stay out of fresh ones. But it appears that a major policy shift is not likely — at least for now.

A veteran in diplomacy, O’Brien has served in various State Department positions, including as a representative to the United Nations under President George W. Bush in 2005. O’Brien also served as a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and he co-chaired a State Department initiative through the Bush and Obama administrations, Justice Reform in Afghanistan.

According to Curt Mills at the American Conservative, O’Brien is seen as “Bolton lite” by insiders. O’Brien himself has praised Bolton, with whom he worked in the Bush administration in 2005. In a December 2016 column, O’Brien called Bolton a “formidable diplomat and a patriot.”

O’Brien won over a shortlist for Bolton’s role that included former deputy National Security adviser Ricky Waddell, Energy Department official Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, former CIA analyst Fred Fleitz, and Army General Keith Kellogg, according to The Hill. Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and Fox News guest who aligns with Trump’s non-interventionist policy, was also briefly said to be in the running and attracted the interest of the American Conservative, which first reported Bolton’s ouster.

Business as usual?

O’Brien is Trump’s fourth National Security adviser, following in the footsteps of Bolton, H.R. McMaster, and Michael Flynn. A source told Reuters that O’Brien is “a low-profile, articulate negotiator who has a strong relationship with Pompeo,” and his hiring is largely being seen as a victory for the secretary of State, who reportedly said he would be have been happy with either O’Brien or Waddell in the position.

Tapped in 2018, O’Brien impressed Trump — and Pompeo — with his work in recovering hostages from Turkey and North Korea. O’Brien was also in Sweden this summer to lobby for rapper A$AP Rocky, whose arrest on assault charges attracted Trump’s attention.

For his part, Trump had sent mixed signals since firing Bolton on which direction he would take his foreign policy. The president knocked “Mr. Tough Guy” for supporting the Iraq War and setting back Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, but he also boasted that he was tougher than Bolton in confronting the socialist government in Venezuela.

Of course, Trump has certainly attracted some criticism from his supporters for hiring advisers who don’t align with his policy, particularly on immigration and foreign wars. But for now, at least, it appears like business as usual in Washington has won the day.

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Matthew Boose

Matthew Boose is a staff writer for Conservative Institute. He has a Bachelor's degree from Stony Brook University and has contributed to The Daily Caller and The Stony Brook Press.