On Tuesday, November 17, White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien slipped out of Washington for a three-country trip to Asia, visiting Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. With a focus on China since becoming national security advisor in September 2019, O’Brien was discussing shared concerns about Beijing’s aggressive behavior and South China Sea territorial claims.
It was highly unusual for the president’s top national security person to leave the capital during a transition. But there was nothing usual about O’Brien, or the Trump administration. Normally a close confidante of the president and the person responsible for the trains running on schedule, Trump’s fourth national security man was practically invisible. He did not have the president’s ear and, despite being an establishment Republican, was not in the loop of the permanent establishment that was now increasingly worrying about the president and the transition.
His reason for leaving town was not a foreign crisis but a personal one: O’Brien had let slip a remark that contradicted the president. “If the Biden-Harris ticket is determined to be the winner—and obviously things look that way now—we’ll have a very professional transition from the National Security Council,” O’Brien said in a talk at the Global Security Forum. “There’s no question about it.”