WASHINGTON — When President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, convenes meetings with top National Security Council officials at the White House, he sometimes opens by distributing printouts of Mr. Trump’s latest tweets on the subject at hand.
The gesture amounts to an implicit challenge for those present. Their job is to find ways of justifying, enacting or explaining Mr. Trump’s policy, not to advise the president on what it should be.
That is the reverse of what the National Security Council was created to do at the Cold War’s dawn — to inform and advise the president on national security decisions. But under Mr. O’Brien, the White House’s hostage negotiator when Mr. Trump chose him to succeed John R. Bolton in September, that dynamic has often been turned on its head.
Mr. O’Brien, a dapper Los Angeles lawyer, convenes more regular and inclusive council meetings than Mr. Bolton. But developing policy is not really Mr. O’Brien’s mission. In the fourth year of his presidency and in his fourth national security adviser, Mr. Trump has finally gotten what he wants — a loyalist who enables his ideas instead of challenging them.
Two of Mr. O’Brien’s predecessors, Mr. Bolton and the retired Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster, had strong policy views informed by deep military or diplomatic experience that differed from Mr. Trump’s in basic ways, and each sought to steer his policies. Mr. O’Brien does not, and the limited role he plays reflects a broader change in the president’s national security team.
Mr. Trump’s original team included independent figures like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who were considered “the adults” who could counter the president’s impulsive tendencies. They have been replaced by relatively little known loyalists anxious to carry out Mr. Trump’s will and eager to embrace his zeal in rooting out members of the so-called deep state involved in his impeachment or seen as dissidents.
In the president’s most recent personnel move, he replaced Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, with Richard Grenell, an outspoken Trump supporter serving as ambassador to Germany who has no background in intelligence.
At the National Security Council, a particular target was Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a Ukraine expert who provided crucial testimony to support the impeachment of Mr. Trump, and was fired along with his twin brother, also an Army officer. Asked about their dismissals during an appearance last week at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, the usually voluble Mr. O’Brien was curt.
“Their services were no longer needed,” he said. “We are not a country where a bunch of lieutenant colonels can get together and decide what the policy is of the United States. We are not a banana republic.”
In the years the since the National Security Council was started by President Harry S. Truman in 1947, its influence has fluctuated, depending on the president, the national security adviser and the relative power of the cabinet members and agency chiefs the national security adviser must coordinate.
Mr. O’Brien has said he is rebuilding an apolitical National Security Council, following the model of Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush, who was famed for acting as a neutral arbiter between the competing views of the Pentagon, the State Department, the intelligence agencies and the Treasury.
But virtually every national security adviser says they emulate Mr. Scowcroft. In reality, they selectively choose the elements of his style they admire. And many national security veterans see in Mr. O’Brien’s approach an intentional weakening of the council.
By the end of this month, Mr. O’Brien will have completed what he calls a streamlining of the National Security Council, chopping the council’s staff from 174 policy positions in October to fewer than 115.
The reductions have focused on the dozens of career officials who are detailed to the council from other federal departments and agencies, including the C.I.A., the Pentagon and the State Department. Former officials say the practice of loaning personnel, typically for terms of about 12 to 18 months, has blossomed over the years in part because it allows the White House to employ people without tapping its own budget.
It also means the White House is populated by career officials whose policy views do not necessarily reflect those of the president but which they are expected to mirror. Current and former Trump administration officials blame the detailees for not only slow-walking the enactment of some of Mr. Trump’s decisions with which they disagree, but also for undermining him with leaks to the news media. Reflecting widespread complaints among Trump allies, the Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs, whose program Mr. Trump regularly watches, singled out the National Security Council as a hotbed of dissent during an interview last week with Mr. O’Brien.
“Given what we’ve witnessed in the three years, a little over three years, of this administration, I couldn’t blame the president if he said, ‘Keep them 50 blocks away,’” Mr. Dobbs said. “The vast number of those leaks that have been so harmful to the president and to the administration have come from the National Security Council. Hopefully that’s all changed as a result of your good efforts.”
Mr. O’Brien smiled and nodded in response.
Mr. O’Brien often notes that both Democrats and Republicans have long said the council, whose staff peaked at 236 policy staff members during the Obama era, had grown unwieldy, prone to micromanagement and in need of culling.
“One thing a polarized Washington has been able to agree on is that the N.S.C. got too big,” said John Gans, who has worked at the Pentagon and is the author of a book on the National Security Council.
But shrinking the size of the National Security Council may actually hurt the president’s agenda since it holds departments and agencies accountable for carrying it out, according to Nadia Schadlow, who served as Mr. McMaster’s deputy and was the principal author of Mr. Trump’s national security strategy.
“I understand why this is happening,” Ms. Schadlow said. “But at some point, it could hurt the implementation of the president’s policies.”
As Mr. O’Brien has whittled down the council he manages, and declaring it was all about efficiency, the president has made little effort to disguise his appetite for purging his own government. “DRAIN THE SWAMP!” he tweeted last week, adding: “We want bad people out of our government.”
The same day, Mr. Trump said in a radio interview that he may drastically limit how many national security officials can listen in on his calls with foreign leaders, breaking from decades of White House procedure. “I may end the practice entirely,” he said.
Such commentary “creates the clear impression that this is about retribution, not reform,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, a Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
But Mr. Murphy questioned how much the National Security Council’s structure really matters under a president who often rejects professional advice in making impulsive policy decisions. “It’s not terribly clear what the N.S.C. has been doing for the last three years,” he said. “The N.S.C.’s function now seems to be war-gaming for potential presidential tweets instead of developing policy recommendations for presidential decision-making.”
Mr. Trump is unlikely to mind that. After more than three years in office, he feels more confident than ever in his management of national security, aides say, especially after some of his major decisions — including the killing of the Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani — failed to elicit the disastrous consequences many experts predicted.
Mr. O’Brien’s willingness to trim the National Security Council, Mr. Gans said, “says something about Trump’s Washington.”
“The national security adviser should have the strongest staff possible,” he continued. “But it seems like Robert O’Brien is focused more on that audience of one — and making sure that Donald Trump is happy.”
The case of China may be the most vivid example of the council’s diminishment. In past administrations, the national security adviser has been central to the complex balancing of security and economic issues the making of China policy requires.
But Mr. O’Brien has been a minor player in the administration’s open warfare on China policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper have publicly called for a broad containment policy that would counter Beijing militarily and cripple key Chinese companies like Huawei, the telecommunications giant.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has taken the opposite view, working to mitigate the confrontation. And much of the White House policymaking has been overseen by Larry Kudlow, a key economic adviser loath to rattle markets.
Normally, the National Security Council would play a role in settling this kind of dispute. But when Mr. Trump tweeted on Tuesday against heavy restrictions on technology sales to China — days after Mr. Esper gave a fiery speech calling for just that — a White House meeting next week on the subject was abruptly postponed. Not only is the policy in some chaos, it is unclear who is supposed to resolve it.
Mr. Trump’s Syria policy is another case in point. When the president pledged in December 2018 to pull out of Syria, stunning top officials, Mr. Bolton worked to mitigate the decision, adding public conditions to the withdrawal that Mr. Trump had not mentioned.
But in October, when Mr. Trump abruptly pulled forces out of the way of a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, he did so with no National Security Council policy process — and no serious weighing of the costs to U.S. influence. Mr. O’Brien, still new to the job, offered no objections, officials say.
Mr. O’Brien held midlevel government posts, including a stint as a deputy to Mr. Bolton when he was ambassador to the United Nations before serving as Mr. Trump’s chief hostage negotiator.
He impressed the president in that job by securing the release of several Americans imprisoned by foreign governments and armed groups. Mr. Trump views the release of detained Americans as tactical “wins” that even his critics are reluctant to question, and Mr. O’Brien continues to pursue those cases in his new job.
Some White House aides joke that his experience navigating fraught situations is ideal preparation for serving Mr. Trump. The president, for his part, appreciates Mr. O’Brien’s quiet manner and tailored suits after his complaints about the gruff personalities and unstylish appearances of Mr. McMaster and Mr. Bolton, whose bushy mustache he often privately mocked.
Mr. O’Brien also gets along better than his predecessors did with Mr. Pompeo, who feuded with Mr. Bolton, and with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who often gives foreign policy advice. And he has been friends with Mr. Grenell, the latest addition to the national security team, for over a decade.
He speaks with the president several times a day, often first thing in the morning and sometimes in the White House’s private residence before Mr. Trump descends to the Oval Office.
But he has no prior ties to Mr. Trump or previously known affinity for the president’s “America First” style of nationalism. A book of essays he published in 2016 channeled mainstream conservative views.
Some national security professionals who have worked with or advised Mr. O’Brien say that it is a mistake to underestimate him and that he has a deft managerial touch that reflects his tenure leading dozens of lawyers in the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox, the Washington law firm.
Others complain that he lacks fluency in policy details and delegates heavy lifting to his chief deputy, Matthew Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Marine who is among a handful of White House aides to survive all three years of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
In a television interview in late December, Mr. O’Brien incorrectly referred to the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un, swapping the leader’s surname for his given one. It was, his critics said, not a mistake that a more experienced official would have made.
Julian E. Barnes, Adam Goldman, Katie Rogers and Edward Wong contributed reporting.
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com