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National Security Adviser Aids In U.S.-Iran Prisoner Swap


President Trump's latest national security adviser is Robert O'Brien. He has a vital job - helping the president manage big foreign policy decisions and crises.


Several recent national security advisers have encountered crises of their own. John Bolton, the most recent, was fired, and Democrats want his testimony in an impeachment inquiry. Now the job falls to O'Brien, who's a California lawyer. Until recently, he was also a U.S. special envoy for hostage negotiations in the State Department.

Over the weekend, an American prisoner went free. Xiyue Wang is a Princeton University scholar imprisoned for three years on murky charges of aiding a foreign power. He's been traded for an Iranian who was in U.S. custody, Masoud Soleimani. And O'Brien came on the line to talk of that exchange.

ROBERT O'BRIEN: We were seeking to bring home all of the Americans in Iran. We were having a very difficult time engaging with the Iranians and getting them to show any interest, so we were quite pleased that we were able to, over the past several weeks, to engage in some intense negotiations with them. And we're hoping that portends well for the release of other Americans held hostage in Iran. And we'd like to get them back home to their families soon as well.

INSKEEP: This is really interesting, Ambassador, because the Iranians, in public, had said they were interested in exactly such an exchange, and they had said that for some months. Are you saying that behind the scenes, when you followed up, they weren't serious until recently?

O'BRIEN: That that's correct. And it wasn't until recently that they've taken us up on that. We were able to get Mr. Wang home, and we're very pleased with the outcome. And we'll continue to be in contact with Iran through the Swiss to see if we can bring some more of our Americans home.

INSKEEP: Families of the other Americans being held are expressing disappointment. You may have heard that Baquer Namazi, whose brother and father have been held in Iran for years, says that his family is beyond devastated that a second president has left my family behind. Why was it not possible to make a larger agreement?

O'BRIEN: Well, we don't leave anybody behind, and we look for the opportunities to bring hostages home as they arise. And I understand the frustration of the families. The Namazis are very good people. I've gotten to know the family well, and they're great people. And they're - I understand their disappointment, but I also know that they're grateful that Mr. Wang is home with his family. I mean, the president is fully committed to bringing all captive Americans home. I mean, no president has had a success rate like President Trump in bringing Americans home from very difficult situations. And we're going to continue to keep at it, and we wish them the best, and we'll continue to work on their behalf.

INSKEEP: We should note - we interview from time to time the family members of people held in Iran, and they've spoken well of you, generally speaking. There is that frustration, though. And then there's a question on the other side. You had to engage in a trade. You had to surrender someone, give up someone in order to get someone. How do you avoid creating an incentive for Iran to take other prisoners to trade - or even other countries to take American prisoners to trade?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, it's a good question, Steve. And you know, what we've been very successful at during the entire Trump administration is not giving concessions for hostages. We haven't sent pallets of cash. We haven't lifted sanctions. There was no money for the Iranians here, which is something that has been a consistent demand of theirs over the years.

INSKEEP: But they got a prisoner.

O'BRIEN: Well, look - they - Mr. Soleimani is returned to Iran. The charges against him were dismissed. You'll have to talk to the Justice Department about the details of that. But I can tell you, he was going to court next week. And this was a very, very good deal for the United States of America...

INSKEEP: I think I'm hearing you suggesting that he would have gotten out anyway, perhaps, and you weren't giving up that much. Is that what you're telling me?

O'BRIEN: We didn't give up anything, and we were able to bring an American home.

INSKEEP: Some people will know that your job as national security adviser, that position traditionally has been to coordinate presidential decision-making - to make sure that the president gets all the information he needs from all the parts of the government, that he can think through things and make carefully weighed decisions. There have been questions over the years about whether the president really follows that process at all. Can you describe to us how it is that you are working with the president on a daily basis to make sure that he has the information he needs?

O'BRIEN: Well, you describe the process at the NSC well. I - most people refer to it as the Brent Scowcroft model, as - the way that the National Security Council can run in a manner that best assists the president of the United States. In my experience in the past 3 1/2 months, the president listens to that advice very carefully. The president has great instincts. It's why he's been able to achieve so much in three years in national security - now in foreign policy. He's got great instincts, and he is assisted by very able Cabinet secretaries - Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, General Milley, CIA Director Haspel, the - Secretary Mnuchin over at Treasury. I mean, it's - it really is an all-star lineup that has been assembled to help the president manage our foreign policy and our national security.

INSKEEP: One other question along those lines - of course, the president is facing an impeachment process. You were not present for the events relating to Ukraine that are at the center of that? But you're present now, and the president has defended calling for investigations of Democrats in Ukraine and even talked of getting investigations elsewhere. If the president wants more investigations of Americans abroad, will he go through the regular decision-making process you just described - go through regular law enforcement channels, for example? Will that happen?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, that - that's not something that I'm seeing or I have any visibility into. And it's not something that - I don't talk about my advice to the president, but it's not something that's on the agenda, as far as I'm aware, in the national security process. I think the - I think the president is rightly frustrated by the impeachment process that's taking place. I can talk about the facts that I know, and that goes back to Ukraine in 2014, when I was there to monitor the elections - the parliamentary elections in Ukraine. And every Ukrainian asked me - please, send us lethal aid; help us defend ourselves so that they could...

INSKEEP: And now that lethal aid, which was held up, has been released is what you're...

O'BRIEN: Well, that's all from President Trump. In the prior administration, there was no lethal aid to the Ukraine. So it's - I find it quite interesting that folks that are so concerned about a short holdup of aid - of a few days of lethal aid were perfectly happy to stand by and watch the Ukrainians get no lethal aid from the United States, which at one time was the arsenal of democracy but certainly wasn't when I was there. And it's great that we've now got a consensus in an otherwise polarized country that the Ukrainians should have lethal aid. So I think that's fantastic.

INSKEEP: There is a bipartisan consensus on that. Just to be clear on what I think you said - I think I heard you say you have no knowledge of the president seeking other investigations of this sort. There's nothing like that going on that you know of, right?

O'BRIEN: I'm not aware of any such thing.

INSKEEP: Ambassador O'Brien, it's been really a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much.

O'BRIEN: Great speaking with you, Steve. Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: He's the president's latest national security adviser and spoke with us over the weekend from an event celebrating Ronald Reagan in California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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