WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s National Security Council is preparing for “a very professional transition,” because it looks like Joe Biden has won the election, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in comments that aired Monday.
His remarks stood in stark contrast to those of the president, who tweeted falsely just before midnight Sunday, “I WON THE ELECTION,” as he continued to make baseless claims of widespread fraud. Twitter put a warning label on the tweet, noting that “official sources have called this election differently.”
The president’s top security official, known as a Trump loyalist, offered a different view.
“Look, 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 remarks made last week that streamed on the web Monday morning as part of a global security forum sponsored by the Soufan Center.
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O’Brien went on to say that the Biden team is “going to have very professional folks who are coming in to take these positions, many of whom have been here before and spent a lot of time in the White House in prior administrations. And the great thing in the United States of America, we’ve passed the baton and had peaceful successful transitions even in the most contentious periods.”
He added, “I’m old enough to remember Bush v. Gore, and the transition there didn’t start until mid-December, and yet it got done. And if we’re in a situation where we’re not going into a Trump second term, which I think people where I’m sitting in the White House would like to see, if it’s another outcome, it will be a professional transition, there’s no question about it.”
O’Brien also sprinkled his remarks with references to the president departing Washington. For example, he called a peace deal Trump helped broker between Israel and some Gulf Arab countries “a great legacy for the president to have as he leaves office.”
The moderator, Steve Clemons, editor at large of the Hill newspaper, did not ask O’Brien to address Trump’s continued false claims that the election was rife with fraud, which appear to have inspired millions of Americans to believe in what amounts to a vast conspiracy to rig the vote.
But O’Brien did say he believed Trump administration efforts helped protect the 2020 election from foreign interference.
“Look, we worked very hard on this,” he said, adding that he personally warned his Russian counterpart that election day meddling “would be a red line.”
O’Brien also touted the activities of U.S. Cyber Command, whose commander, Gen. Paul Nakasone, has said he took offensive action to thwart Iranian and Russian cyber activity.
“So it was a combination of sending out very clear signals to our foreign counterparts — not just Russia, but other countries, China, Iran, others, but also making sure that we had hardened our infrastructure to the extent we could to avoid that kind of problem,” O’Brien said.
Although Trump seemed to acknowledge in a tweet Sunday morning that Biden won, he quickly clarified that he meant only to say the media was falsely reporting that result.
Trump continued to wage rhetorical war on reality even as Republicans increasingly began to acknowledge that Biden will be the next president. On Sunday, Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, said he “expects Joe Biden to be the next president of the United States.”
Hutchinson echoed calls by several Republican senators that Biden be given access to intelligence briefings and transition support.
“It is very important that Joe Biden have access to the intelligence briefings to make sure that he is prepared,” he said. “During times of transition, our enemies have an opportunity to take advantage of us, and we want to make sure that there is a smooth transition, particularly when it comes to the vaccine distribution [so that] everybody understands what we’re doing there and what the plan is for the future.”
O’Brien spent most of the interview noting what he considers Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments, including ousting the Islamic State militant group from its so-called caliphate in Syria, forging a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and getting tougher on unfair Chinese trade practices.
A senior administration official confirmed to NBC News that, as first reported Sunday by Axios, Trump plans a series of executive actions in his final days designed to crack down on Chinese human rights and trade abuses.
O’Brien reiterated his view that the foreign policy establishment had been wrong on China for years.
“We’ve turned a blind eye to Chinese economic activity, the manipulation of the renminbi, the dumping, the unfair trade practices,” he said. “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.”
O’Brien also noted the Trump administration’s success in bringing to justice the so-called Beatles, former British subjects who joined ISIS and are accused of torturing and killing Americans and others in Syria.
Two of them, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, were recently brought to the U.S. to face federal terrorism charges after Attorney General William Barr agreed to waive the death penalty to clear the way for the use of evidence obtained by the United Kingdom.
O’Brien also touted the Arab-Israeli peace deals, which did not get the attention they might have because they came in the middle of a pandemic and the presidential election.
“President Trump achieved a truly historic peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Israel,” O’Brien said. “We call them the Abraham Accords in English or the Abraham Accords in Hebrew or the Ibraham Accords in Arabic. They represent the most significant step forward for peace in the Middle East in over 25 years.”
Unmentioned in O’Brien’s recitation of Trump accomplishments was North Korea, which has continued improving its nuclear weapons capabilities despite two high-profile summits between Trump and its reclusive dictator, Kim Jong Un.
O’Brien also provided what for many will be a surprising assessment of his boss as a student of national security information. Many former senior Trump administration officials, including O’Brien’s predecessor, John Bolton, have portrayed Trump as unable to process intelligence and national security data and uninterested in trying.
O’Brien sees Trump differently.
“The president is a voracious consumer of intelligence and the information that we provide him,” he said. “And so, he looks at charts, he looks at maps … I think he’s got a very innate sense of geography. And so, he’ll spend a lot of time poring over maps and charts and that sort of thing.”
O’Brien said his approach as national security adviser was not to steer Trump, but to empower him.
“He had been president of the United States for three years when I joined him as national security adviser,” he said. “I said, ‘You’ve got a well-developed sense of what you want to do. I view my job as making sure you get all the best options you have that are available for you to implement the policy that you want.’ My effectiveness, I think, comes from the fact that he can rely on me to give him good advice, to give him the best options, and then to implement his policies.”