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U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien gives the keynote address during the 6th annual Stewart Security Summit, hosted by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.
U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien gives the keynote address during the 6th annual Stewart Security Summit, hosted by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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Meet the highest ranking Latter-day Saint in the Trump administration

He is often the president’s first phone call in the morning and last phone call at night.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien says President Donald Trump works “pretty long” hours.

“I’ve had my first call at 6 a.m. and my last call at midnight with the president. He’s an energetic guy, energetic president,” he said.

O’Brien — Trump’s fourth national security adviser in less than four years — has been on the job now for a little over a year. He marks a sharp contrast to a couple of his controversial predecessors, Michael Flynn and John Bolton.

Unlike Bolton, O’Brien is on the same page as the president. O’Brien said he has a “tremendous” amount of respect for Trump and they have developed a “very nice” relationship. He said he has never been worried about hanging on to any job and would go back to being a trial lawyer in the private sector if Trump fired him.

“I just go to work every day doing the best I can, and if there comes a point in time when the president wants somebody else, I’ll salute and applaud him and wish the new national security adviser luck,” O’Brien said in an interview during a stop in Salt Lake City earlier this month.

“But I think we’ve had a very good run of success over the past year.”

O’Brien, 54, has lived up to his characterization in the national media as an affable, sharp, team player and a tough negotiator. He is described by those who know him as warm, engaging, receptive, focused and a man of faith.

Raised Catholic and a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he is the highest ranking Latter-day Saint in the U.S. government.

O’Brien attended a Catholic high school but had Latter-day Saint friends growing up in California. He went to UCLA but took a semester off in his sophomore year to attend Brigham Young University, the Church of Jesus Christ’s flagship institution, to “see what it’s all about.”

“I’m not going to lie. I wanted to ski a little bit as well,” he said.

During his semester at the Provo-based private school, O’Brien said he developed a testimony of the restored gospel and joined the church. He returned to UCLA and received a degree in political science. He met his wife, Lo-Mari, who has a Dutch Afrikaans background, while studying abroad. She joined the church after they met.

O’Brien then earned a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. “She was nice enough to put me through law school,” he said of his wife.

The O’Briens raised three children, Margaret, Robert and Lauren. Their oldest daughter graduated from BYU before heading to law school, while the youngest is in the aviation program at Utah Valley University.

The younger Robert O’Brien slipped, hit his head and fell into his home pool resulting in his accidental drowning in September 2015, a few months after graduating from high school and while planning to serve a mission for the church.

O’Brien said his son was a great young man.

“We certainly miss him. These are tough things to go through. There’s probably nothing tougher to go through,” he said. “Hopefully as a result you become more compassionate and more caring toward other people who are going through difficult times.”

O’Brien gets to Utah a couple of times a year to ski, visit friends or attend a BYU football game. He said the Cougars have a “heck of a team” this year, and it’s too bad they’re not playing their pre-pandemic schedule because “I think they finally beat the Utes.”

O’Brien said his faith informs how he does his job in that like many believers, he believes America was founded as a result of divine providence, that the Founding Fathers were inspired by God.

“There was divine inspiration in creating a land where there was religious freedom, where Catholics and Protestants and Jews and eventually Latter-day Saints could worship in freedom,” he said.

Freedoms of speech, religion and the press and the right to assemble are interwoven and must be fiercely protected, he added.

“We have adversaries around the world that take a very different view of those freedoms,” O’Brien said.

“So I think my faith, my belief that God looks after America is something that gives us confidence,” he said. “I don’t take any instructions from my faith on how we address policy, but I do think that America’s a very special place, and I think we have a Heavenly Father that looks after America.”

O’Brien said his beliefs are consistent with how Ronald Reagan talked about America as the last best hope on earth and a shining city on a hill.

“I believe that very much. I think that’s consistent with Latter-day Saint doctrine,” he said. “But I also think it’s consistent with Jewish and Christian and hopefully Muslim and other religions that are here in America, that we realize that there are great blessings that come to this country by providence.”

O’Brien was seen as a “safe option” to replace Bolton, who Trump fired after clashes over the administration’s approach to Iran, Afghanistan and other global challenges.

As national security adviser, O’Brien is the president’s principal staffer in the White House to advise him on foreign policy and national security affairs. The job entails pulling together various government agencies and departments on any given issue, whether it’s Middle East peace, nuclear arms control, U.S. policy on China or rebuilding the Navy.

At the time of his appointment, O’Brien was the administration’s chief hostage negotiator. He worked closely with the families of American hostages and advised administration officials on hostage issues. He helped secure the release of Andrew Brunson, a pastor held by Turkey for two years, and Danny Burch, an oil-company engineer kidnapped in Yemen.

He also worked with then U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. to secure the release of two Latter-day Saint missionaries who were detained in Russia.

O’Brien’s career has been a mix of public service, including time as a judge advocate general officer in the Army reserve, and private practice.

He started a small law office with friends in Los Angeles that merged into a large national firm called Arent Fox in Washington, D.C.

O’Brien was the U.S. alternate representative to the United Nations General Assembly from 2005 through 2006, when Bolton was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. In 2008, O’Brien served a three-year term on a government committee that advises on the trafficking of antiquities and other cultural items. He was the founding co-chairman of the Department of State Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2011 and served under both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

In 2004, O’Brien did some legal work for the George W. Bush reelection campaign, and promised his wife afterward that he wouldn’t do another presidential campaign.

But a friendship with Tagg Romney, who was working for the Los Angeles Dodgers, led O’Brien to getting involved with Mitt Romney’s 2008 run for president.

“I think he exceeded expectations and came very close to winning the (Republican) nomination,” O’Brien said.

Four years later, he worked on Romney’s 2012 campaign advisory team as co-chairman of the International Organizations Work Group.

Romney has since become one of Trump’s most vocal GOP critics. O’Brien said he probably doesn’t agree with Romney on all his positions, but said “he’s a good man with a great family.”

“I think highly of the governor as a person and his son is a close friend of mine,” he said. “But obviously, he’s got some pretty significant differences with the president and the administration.”

One of those differences is on foreign policy.

O’Brien lists standing up to China, sanctions on Russia and Iran, pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and the recent Abraham Accords among Trump’s achievements, many of which have transpired since O’Brien’s appointment.

“I want to make it clear these are accomplishments of the president of the United States. They’re not my accomplishments,” he said.

Though Trump is criticized for not getting along with allies, his approach to NATO resulted in nine countries agreeing to pay $400 billion more on defense through 2024, O’Brien said.

The president’s foreign policy achievements across the board have been good for the country, he said.

“But I think there are people that don’t want to recognize the accomplishments because they fear that it would give credit to President Trump, and that’s a shame,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien recently met with his Russian counterpart in Geneva to “see if we can unstick the logjam on the arms control negotiations.”

“We’re looking to see if we can get a good deal on arms control with the Russians because the president feels nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to humanity and America, so we’re working on that,” he said.

O’Brien serves on the administration’s coronavirus task force. He contracted COVID-19 in July but said he was “blessed” with a mild case. Other than feeling fatigued, he didn’t have the traditional systems.

“The worst part of it was the quarantine, being stuck in our apartment for 12 days. I was ready to get out. I certainly understand how the president wanted to get out of Walter Reed and get back to the White House,” he said.

O’Brien defended Trump’s response to the pandemic, saying he took decisive action early by closing off travel from China.

“People thought it would tank the economy and create great political trouble for him,” he said. “He was roundly criticized and yet that step probably saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.”

In February, O’Brien was part of a furious effort to replenish the nation’s vastly understocked supply of personal protective equipment and ventilators. He said about 100,000 ventilators were made in a matter of months, enough for the U.S. to give some to other countries.

O’Brien said he was with the president on calls to world leaders, some of whom weren’t friendly to the United States, offering ventilators.

“That was one of the neatest experiences I’ve had in government,” he recalled.

How long O’Brien remains in government might depend on the outcome of next Tuesday’s election.

The Washington Post reported this week that O’Brien visited two swing states, raising concerns about the use of taxpayer-funded official trips for what critics say are thinly veiled activities designed to boost Trump in political battleground areas.

O’Brien attended a roundtable on mining hosted by a Republican congressman in Minnesota and toured a shipyard in Wisconsin.

The trip came as officials across the Trump administration travel to swing states to deliver messages at events and in local media interviews, helping shore up support for the president, according to the Post.

National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot told the Post there is no greater priority than maintaining the national security industrial base and its highly skilled workers who deliver top quality products that help our servicemen and women keep the country safe.

“The important work of protecting our national security continues regardless of domestic political events,” he said.

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