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Who is Trump National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien?

United States (US) National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien is visiting the Philippines and has scheduled activities on Monday, November 23, to discuss collaboration and the region's importance to America.

O'Brien's visit comes months after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had engagements with Southeast Asian nations in a bid to further enhance relations amid the coronavirus pandemic and heightened tensions between China and the US.

O'Brien is US President Donald Trump's 4th national security adviser. He was appointed in September 2019 after Trump "forced" John Bolton to resign, another controversial figure known for his hardline push for a US military presence in other countries such as Iraq and Venezuela.

Bolton, who eventually turned against the Trump administration, heavily opposed the US President's efforts to negotiate with the Taliban and North Korea.

In January 2020, O'Brien was named member of Trump's coronavirus task force. In July 2020, however, he tested positive for the coronavirus, and is known to be among the first among Trump's most senior officials to contract the virus.

Career in government

O'Brien maintains a much lower profile than his predecessor Bolton.

O'Brien is a lawyer by profession and was an arbitrator in at least 20 international proceedings. In 2016, he co-founded the Larson O'Brien litigation firm based in Los Angeles, California.

He received his law degree from University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Before his appointment in 2019, O'Brien served as special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the US State Department. He had worked on helping American citizens held in foreign countries.

Among those he helped was American oil worker Danny Burch who was kidnapped for 18 months in Yemen by Houthi rebels.

O'Brien held several positions in government under former president George W. Bush. Among them was member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and co-chairperson of the US State Department's Public-Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2011.

In 2005, O'Brien served as the US representative to the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

From 1996 to 1998, he worked as a senior legal officer for the UN Security Council commission which handled claims against Iraq in relation to the first Gulf War.

Long-time Republican

In between working for the government, O'Brien had been actively working as adviser for many key Republican figures. He has also worked on at least 3 presidential campaigns since 2012.

For instance, O'Brien was one of the advisers of then-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential run against the incumbent at the time, Barack Obama.

Romney, in 2019, described O'Brien as "a man of highest integrity."

In 2015, O'Brien served as foreign policy adviser during the presidential run of then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. He later worked for Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz when Walker dropped out of the 2016 race.

His experience working with high-profile Republican officials makes up for his relatively short stint in government so far, having worked mostly under Bush and Trump only.

But despite being a loyal Republican, O'Brien veered away from the official Trump line which challenges the results of the recently concluded presidential elections.

On November 17, referring to the win of former vice president Joseph Biden, O'Brien said that "obviously things look that way now." He also promised a "very professional transition" from the National Security Council.

China and other issues

In a tweet, the US National Security Council said the purpose of the visit is to "reaffirm the strength of our bilateral relationships and to discuss regional security cooperation."

But experts are saying that O'Brien is expected to go for a last-minute push against China, consistent with the Trump administration's stance.

O'Brien previously said that China is the biggest threat to the US elections, and not Russia. He also accused China of stealing coronavirus vaccine research from other Western countries.

In June, O'Brien said that America under Trump has "finally awoken to the threat of the Chinese Communist Party’s actions and the threat they pose to our very way of life."

His remarks are not new as he has long criticized the Obama administration for its treatment of China.

An NBC News report quoted him as saying: "We've turned a blind eye to Chinese economic activity, the manipulation of the renminbi, the dumping, the unfair trade practices.... We've turned a blind eye to intellectual property theft. We've turned a blind eye to all these things or turned the other cheek, so to speak, because we thought the conventional wisdom is as China became richer, as China became more powerful, they become more like us."

"And it was really a Western conceit…a very arrogant approach to China that they would become wealthy and middle class and then immediately they'd become liberal democrats and responsible stakeholders in the world. That obviously hasn't happened," NBC News reported O'Brien as saying.

In his book While America Sleeps, O'Brien described China as having a "rapid and impressive effort to establish itself as the supreme maritime power in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans."

He added that “it should now be more than clear that the world is facing a significant challenge to a maritime system that has been dominated for the past two hundred years by Anglo-American navies.”

Ending his essay on China, O'Brien warned that the US’ response to China “will define the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region for the rest of the century.” –

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.