‘Stopping Putin in Ukraine Will Send a Message to Xi Jinping’
An interview with former National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.
Hello and happy Thursday!
The Kitchens are on vacation this week and we’re having a wonderful time. The picture below is from the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey—where Alexander Hamilton was shot by Aaron Burr.
As we continue our travels I thought it’d be nice to provide a condensed and edited transcript of my recent interview with former Trump national security advisor, Robert O’Brien. We spoke last week on the Dispatch podcast (listen here) and we cover a lot of different topics of interest—including China, Ukraine, and the January 6 riots at the Capitol.
Before diving in, a few listeners have said I should have pushed O’Brien harder on his January 6 comments. Perhaps. I’m certainly not a hard-nosed journalist like many of my fellow Dispatchers. But if I’m honest, I also have to admit that I was a little sympathetic to his cause. The reality is that the political rally and the other events that day were not under the purview of the national security adviser. Those were political decisions being made by political operatives and by the president.
It’s also true that it was the intelligence community that was raising many of the alarms about how the protests could get out of hand and I’m sure O’Brien was making those assessments known. Even more, when his deputy, Matt Pottenger, resigned that afternoon, O’Brien’s hands were pretty much tied because national security doesn’t take a time out when things go sideways domestically (in fact, they get even more serious). The nation would have genuinely been less safe if he had resigned prior to the Biden administration taking office—and the fact that O’Brien was the last senior executive at the White House on Inauguration Day reinforces this point.
Having said all of that, here’s the transcript and I hope it gives you a little bit of insight into a job that is hugely important and often very difficult.
See ya next week!
KLON: Robert, thanks for taking time to join me for a conversation.
ROBERT O’BRIEN: Great to be with you Klon, thank you.
KLON: You were the fourth NSA to President Trump, is that right?
ROBERT O'BRIEN: I was, so we’d had Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster and John Bolton.
KLON: Talk a little bit about the president’s general approach to national security and foreign policy, the types of work that you were advising him on.
ROBERT O'BRIEN: So, the job of the assistant to the president for national security affairs, or the NSA job, is to be the principal foreign policy and national security adviser to the president—and I took a little different view of my work than I think my predecessors did. I told the president this in the interview (and I think maybe one of the reasons why he asked me to do the job) is I felt that President Trump had a very well-defined foreign policy. I thought he should get the best options and best advice on whatever issue he was facing, and then once he made a decision the departments and agencies should implement that decision. I didn't view my job is trying to educate him on what his policy should be, I didn't come to the job with a foreign policy agenda—'ve got well-thought out views on a lot of issues, but again, I was staffing the president. I wasn't a principal, and I hadn't been elected by anybody to put my foreign policy in place. My job was to make sure the president got—whether it was a long term issue that we were facing, great power competition for example, or an immediate crisis like COVID or the Baghdadi situation—to make sure the president got the absolute best advice from his Cabinet secretaries. And if he wanted my opinion at the end of the day after hearing from everybody else, and everyone having had their day in court, I'd give my advice. And then once the president made a decision on how to proceed, our job with the NSC was to coordinate with the Cabinet and the Cabinet secretaries and and their departments and agencies to make sure that the president’s foreign policy was implemented.
KLON: That sounds very reminiscent of the way Secretary[Condoleezza] Rice would talk about her role when she was the NSA. That she wanted to make sure that the president was getting as diverse and as deep a counsel as he could on those issues. You know, let's put Michael Flynn aside, but you can see how McMasters and Bolton both came in with a very developed, comprehensive, and public kind of world view on foreign policy issues, and I can see the daylight between how you're describing your approach and perhaps how they might have. I think, from at least open press reporting, why the president kind of chafed against some of that. He probably didn't want to feel like he was being kind of lectured to, he wanted the implementation of his view.
ROBERT O'BRIEN: No, I think that's right. And you know I worked for Condi at the State Department when she was secretary, and she was one of the first visitors I had I think. I took office on a Tuesday and she flew back to see me on a Sunday. We sat in her old office (my new office) and she very generously gave me a couple of hours of her time, and I think Condi tried to follow, and I tried to follow, a model established by Brent Scowcroft, who’d served twice as national security advisor under both President Ford and President Bush—H.W. Bush. And every national security adviser when they come office invokes that, it's kind of a mantra that you know we're going to do the Scowcroft model, but I think it's been followed in the breach more than the regular order.
So I really did try to restore the Scowcroft model, and I think when you look at what we did with a slimmed down NSC—I mean when I got there there was still almost 200 policy professionals, Condi’d had 106 at the height of Afghanistan, Iraq, the global war on terror, great power competition, she’d had half that and I kind of took that as my model as well—we got a very efficient NSC. We had an NSC that really ran on process where, again, all the Cabinet agencies and departments had their data to give their best views and best options. If there was a split opinion I’d have each side elect a representative, so it might be Pompeo on one side and Mnuchin on the other, and we’d go see the president and I’d make sure the president heard both sets of views. But for the most part, we were able to drive consensus and go to the president with a set of options that we thought were best for the American people, and again that was derived out of deputies committee meetings and weekly principal committee meetings where we got the best input from—whether it was Treasury or Commerce or State or Defense or the IC. And I think of the results of what we did with NATO funding, with getting Baghdadi, with putting Iran in a box, with the new consensus on China, certainly on the peacemaking front with the Abraham Accords, with Serbia-Kosovo, with healing the Gulf rift and even Afghanistan, I think the results were pretty impressive, and in eighteen months.
KLON: I’m curious about our perspective on the state of the intelligence community. What’s your take on the IC? How’s it doing? Are there specific ways that it needs to evolve to be more aligned to modern statecraft and policymaking?
ROBERT O'BRIEN: So I think when it comes to collection, we’re second to none. It’s pretty impressive what we can pull together. And I think the IC, like anything else, it’s a tremendous tool. They have great abilities with their SIGINT or ELINT or even human intelligence. However we think of it, and however we collect, it gets the policymakers – people like me, the secretary of state, the CIA director, the folks that have to advise the president and advise Congress on what we should be doing – it gets us what we need.
I think one thing that’s—there are a couple of issues with the intelligence community. One, I think it’s like any big bureaucracy, becomes a little risk-averse. And sometimes we need people that’ll—even if they’re wrong—that’ll step up with an innovative or thoughtful theory that may not fall with conventional wisdom. You always worry that people might not want to be the outlier because they're afraid of how it’ll affect their career, but we need the outliers. Even if the outliers are wrong, they’re provocative and they cause us to think about things, that – maybe look at things a different way and come up with a different solution.
We’ve got a lot of people who are highly skilled and spent the best years of their life in places like Jalalabad and Kandahar and Anbar and Fallujah, places like that, and know that part of the world incredibly well. But the world is changing. And those places remain important to the United States, we can’t ignore them, but our existential threat comes from the Communist Party of China and their Ministry of State Security on the IC front. Those guys are deadly and serious, and of course we still have what was the former KGB, the FSB and SVR now with the Russians, and the Iranians have the MOIS. So we need to start shifting our focus both as a government to the Indo-Pacific, but also to Russia in Eastern Europe and keep an eye on Iran. And so we want to make sure we’re not just living in the surge in 2006, in the glory days of Baghdad and the second Bush term.
KLON: So as you were in your position, what types of domestic threat work were you engaged in? What did that look like? What were the kinds of concerns that developed over the course of your time at the White House?
ROBERT O'BRIEN: Yeah my biggest domestic concern, Klon, was the CPC (the Communist Party of China) and the People’s Republic of China and their infiltration into the U.S. which is extensive, pervasive, there are cells everywhere, they have an unbelievable ability to track their students who are here, to enforce their party orthodox on Chinese—even second- and third-generation Chinese that are here—to collect intelligence, to steal our IP. Christopher Wray talked about this in the summer of 2020 in a speech he gave—we gave a series of four speeches, Bill Barr, Chris Wray, myself and Mike Pompeo each gave a speech on China, we each took a different area and kind of laid out the threat—and Chris Wray made a statement in his speech that I thought was really interesting. I've repeated it several times. “The Chinese IP theft is the largest transfer of wealth in human history.” In other words, the Chinese are taking more money and value out of the U.S. over the past 40 years through theft of our intellectual property than any sack of Rome, Trajan’s campaign in Dacia.
Look, there are certainly threats here. We have an Antifa threat, you know we had domestic terrorism on the left, we’re seeing now some of the reports about the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and some of these threats on the right. And those are things we need to keep an eye on, and I don’t want to minimize those threats, but I think the threat that we’re facing from the Communist Party of China is a threat to our way of life and our future liberty. And I think we’ve got to be careful about, you know, sending FBI agents out to school boards to watch parents protesting about CRT when they really ought to be trailing Chicom agents who are operating here that we know about—and we’ve got to be careful not to let our domestic politics influence how the IC does our counter-intelligence here in the US. So that was my biggest concern, and again not that other concerns aren’t important, but when we think about our kids having liberty and the ability of the pursuit of happiness—not just in America but in the other democracies—we’re facing an existential threat right now.
KLON: But it does seem over the last several years to have adjusted to some of the—what we’ll call “politically right-wing” groups that you mentioned, and that are in the news right now obviously with Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and the like. Not only them, but certainly them. How did that come up as an issue for you to deal with?
ROBERT O'BRIEN: You do. In my case we had a great attorney general in Bill Barr, and Chad Wolf was our acting homeland security secretary—both very capable men. And so for the most part we sort of coordinated the advice they got, but we left that to the FBI and the DOJ and Homeland to do most of those briefings. I would of course be there, and again the threats we saw changed even over the year and a half that I was national security advisor. At the outset we had the BLM movement and a lot of Antifa, so I mean you had situations where you know, pallets of bricks were being delivered close to the White House and a really impressive logistics chain—not impressive in that it was a good thing but impressive in that these Antifa folks were very good at logistics and created massive damage, I mean far greater damage than happened on January 6 (which again I condemned at the time, in real time, and was a terrible thing to happen to our country). But we also faced—I mean, I was taken to an undisclosed location at least two times because of attacks on the White House by Antifa that haven’t been covered to the same extent as some of the other outbreaks. So both on the far left and the far right, whether you’ve got Antifa or these Proud Boys types—and you know I don’t even think it’s fair to call them “far left” or “far right” because I think it’s unfair to liberals or conservatives—but just these domestic extremists, and certainly they’re being radicalized and coordinating and we know this from both types of groups.
KLON: Yeah. I think you're exactly right in the sense that no political faction, wherever it is on the spectrum, has a monopoly on—unfortunately on political violence and extremism right now. It does seem to be this proliferating challenge and it has evolved over the course of even my time kind of engaging in these issues. You—I just want to touch on this briefly—but you bring up January 6. What was your day like that day? Like, how did those events unfolding— what does that look like from your perspective in the White House?
ROBERT O'BRIEN: Yeah so I was actually—and this hasn’t been publicly reported on and I don’t spend a lot of time talking about it—I was in Florida at SOUTHCOM. But that’s where I was on January 6, I was actually in a SCIF most of the day until I was pulled out of the SCIF by my staff to let me know what was going on. We finally made it back to Washington late that night, but look in real time I put out tweets on my personal Twitter account and I was impressed by the courage of the vice president staying there. I spoke to a number of our senators, I was waiting for my Coast Guard plane to get me home, and I certainly condemned the protesters and did all of that very publicly. It was—as I said, I think that day it was an utter disgrace, what those people did in the Capitol.
KLON: So we can transition now to a couple of the key hot spots. When you think about China and the possible move on Taiwan, do you see that as a growing possibility? What were the types of briefings that you were getting while you were NSA?
ROBERT O'BRIEN: That’s a great question. Look, it’s a very serious concern. It’s the—it might be the most pressing concern that Jake Sullivan (the current national security advisor) and the president face, Lloyd Austin the [secretary of defense] and Tony Blinken. We know from Admiral Davidson, Admiral Davidson who was thecombatant commander for the INDOPACOM AOR out in Hawaii (Pearl Harbor), he said a couple of years ago that he had thought it was a five- to seven-year window for the Chinese to invade. In the last days I was national security adviser I said, “Look, I think it’s going to be shorter than that,” and since President Biden’s taken office and as the Chinese watch what’s happening in Ukraine, there are folks now—I saw a headline that one analyst is predicting in October 2022 an invasion of Taiwan, and we’re seeing that the Chinese put everything in place to be able to do so.
KLON: And so do you think that—it depends on how we define success, but do you think that a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan is—that there’s a potential there for kind of a fait accompli where they could act in such a way to where they can act quickly enough and decisively enough before the United States could really respond, to where it just becomes a done deal? Is that a possibility?
ROBERT O'BRIEN: That’s our play book. I mean the good news is, without getting into details, we’ve got a few things up our sleeve as well. We’re not—we don’t lack all capability to defeat a Chinese amphibious invasion. We’ve got some exquisite capabilities of our own, many of which aren’t public. And so I don’t think the Chinese can—I think they’re trying to put themselves in a position to do that kind of invasion and hit fast and accomplish their goals before we can get into the theater, but we’ve got somethings that could interrupt that planning and that sort of an operation. I’ll leave it at that.
KLON: Okay, so let’s now kind of turn to Ukraine—and as we talk about Ukraine, I think one thing that would be especially helpful is if you could obviously give us your insights terms of what you’re seeing and what you’re anticipating, but also there is a growing movement on the kind of right side of the political aisle toward what they euphemistically refer to as “restraint.” There’s a growing kind of “restraint” movement particularly in conservative politics where– you know, with the recent $40 billion supplemental bill that was passed eventually for supporting Ukraine, there was a lot of disagreement on the political right about this. And I think that is in fact emblematic of this growing voice within Republican and conservative circles. I’m curious about your thoughts on that, and then the—kind of the broader Ukraine challenge and where you think the United States should be aligning its time and resources on Ukraine.
ROBERT O'BRIEN: Well let me address the political issue first.I talk about what Ronald Reagan talked about which is “peace through strength.” You know, the way to stay out of a war—and people are exhausted by the wars, these are the folks that have sent their kids off to go fight in places like Jalalabad and Fallujah and Anbar and… the Sahel in Burkina and Niger. These are the people that sent their sons and daughters out to go fight those wars, and so there is a concern and exhaustion that America is overextended, and that we’re perhaps fighting in wars that we shouldn’t be involved in—trying to turn Afghanistan into Sweden or that sort of thing. And that’s a legitimate concern, and I understand the folks who raise those issues—but Ukraine is a very different situation. You know Ukraine—the Ukrainians are fighting for themselves. The Ukrainians aren’t asking for American airmen to enforce a no-fly zone. They’re asking for MIGs so that their own pilots can enforce a no-fly zone over their own country. They’re fighting out on the front lines in Donbas, and under incredibly trying circumstances, and fighting for their own country; and they’ve got massive enlistment, there’s no lack of morale, there’s no lack of dedication to fighting. But what they’re asking for is for America to be the arsenal of democracy. And if we don’t stand up for freedom here, and if we don’t provide folks in Ukraine or other places with the tools and equipment they need to stop Russian aggression, you know eventually it’s going to be up to Americans to go do it. And so—you know once you have that conversation, I’ve found very little disagreement when Americans understand that Ukrainians are fighting for themselves, and all they’re asking from us is for us to give them the tools to fight the Russians. And I think you get a very different response than maybe your standard, Tucker Carlson monologue; and again I haven’t found whether it’s in Oklahoma or Nebraska or Idaho or Utah, any of these places I’ve been that are very conservative and very much folks that believe in America First—when you explain the stakes that are at issue, when you explain that this is the first time since the 1930s that a bigger neighbor has decided to invade a smaller neighbor just because they want their national resources, they want their population, they want that “might makes right,” that they can expand their empire through conquest, we haven’t recognized territorial expansion through conquest at least since the U.N. charter but even 100 years before that. So the idea that this is happening today is very bad. And when they understand that Xi Jinping in Beijing is watching to see how the West reacts to Putin’s invasion of and attempt to occupy Ukraine, he’s watching that to measure what he’s going to do in Taiwan. And when Xi Jinping attempts to take Taiwan—and if the Chinese communists are successful at taking Taiwan—geopolitically that’s an absolute disaster for the U.S. We could maybe survive Ukraine being taken over by the Russians, it would be very very difficult in the Indo-Pacific and for our allies to survive a Chinese takeover of Taiwan. That’s the cork coming out of the champagne bottle of the Pacific, and the champagne (in which there is the People’s Liberation Army and Navy) will spill all out into the entire Pacific from the Aleutians to Hawaii, the Midway to Wake, to California, South, to all the islands that our grandfathers and great uncles fought for in World War II. The Chinese are going to control the Pacific—it’s such a critical island in Taiwan, and that’s the most important economic zone in the entire world for the future of our economy, so that would be a travesty. So stopping Putin in Ukraine will send a message to Xi Jinping that you know, might stop him in Taiwan, and avoid a real catastrophe for America and our allies in the Pacific.
KLON: Putin has given every indication that if he were able to roll through Ukraine, that eventually he’s going to go—he’s going to continue on the expansion. All the same rationales that he used for Ukraine would exist with other countries, including NATO-bordering countries. And so eventually, you know, if Vladimir Putin is not sufficiently chastised and kind of pushed back into his hole, he’s going to take an action that even the most restrained kind of individual won’t be able to kind of look away from, right? I would say that Ukraine already constitutes a significant national interest on our part—in part because of the way you’ve described it—but then too, even if you don’t, he will continue to push and he has made that very clear. And so unfortunately we don’t have an option of kind of avoiding a kind of conflict because the other guy—in this case Putin—he gets a choice. And he’s making that choice, and he’s making it very clearly and publicly, and sometimes you just have to accept reality. So you’ve got to engage it.
ROBERT O'BRIEN: You’re 100 percent right, by the way. I mean look, he's threatening Poland. The reason the Finns joined NATO is because he said Finland was part of the Russian family—I think the Finns woke up after that speech and said “what the heck?” He’s threatening the Baltics, I mean these are NATO allies, certainly Moldova and Georgia. So we’re going to end up—if we don’t stop him in Ukraine, we are going to have American soldiers engaged with Russian soldiers in one of these other countries. And at that point, the risk of escalation is so high that you’ve got two massive nuclear powers in a land war, and the risks to America at that point are extraordinary. So we are far better off—as you point out, Klon, 100percent—letting the Ukrainians try and push the Russians back in Ukraine without asking for American troops on the ground. And if we get them the tools and the platforms they need, I think they can get the job done. The problem is we’re just not doing it.
They’re talking the talk but they’re not walking the walk. For example, the MIGs—why weren’t the Polish MIGs given to Ukraine in month one? That wasn’t going to spur nuclear war between the US and Russia. You know, keep in mind, a lot of our grandfathers and fathers fought in Korea and Vietnam. They were shot at every day by Russian MIGs. I mean there were Russian MIGs in Korea, there were Russian MIGs in Vietnam, we didn’t launch a nuclear war or say that was some sort of red line. If the Poles wanted to give the Ukrainians 29 MIGs, why didn’t we facilitate it? I mean, I kind of think back on our administration, you know Gina Haspel is so clever. Gina would have sold the planes to the Ukrainians through a Russian middleman, Putin would have gotten his 10 percent cut of it, and they would have been in Ukrainian livery the next day and no one would have known what happened. And instead we had this big, public debacle on the MIGs. So look√we’ve got to cut off the Russians, we’ve got to get the Ukrainians the MIGs already, and we’ve got to get them the long-range artillery and let them defend their country against the Soviet—this Russian invasion.
KLON: Yeah. Robert, you and I could keep going, there’s a ton of things that we could talk about but you’ve been very generous with your time already and we’re bumping into an hour so I want to kind of bring it to a close. But listen, being the national security adviser to a U.S. president is a big job, it’s a tough job. And you know look, I think the nation owes you an appreciation for the work that you did under difficult circumstances on some very difficult issues. I appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation with me.
ROBERT O'BRIEN: Thank you, honor to be with you Klon, you served a long time as well and so thank you for your service in the IC and in government.