New National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien Will Inherit An NSC In Turmoil Career foreign policy professionals tell NPR they increasingly fear that joining the NSC, which is part of the White House, will taint them as political operatives.
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Once A 'Rocket Ship,' National Security Council Now Avoided By Government Pros

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Once A 'Rocket Ship,' National Security Council Now Avoided By Government Pros

Once A 'Rocket Ship,' National Security Council Now Avoided By Government Pros

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump has named Robert O'Brien to be his fourth national security adviser. O'Brien is taking over one of the most important foreign policy jobs in Washington. The president praised his new national security adviser for his work as a State Department hostage envoy.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's worked with me for quite awhile now on hostages. And we've had a tremendous track record with respect to hostages.

SHAPIRO: But there are big challenges ahead. Not only is this a sensitive time in the world, NPR's reporting finds that O'Brien is taking over as the National Security Council struggles to attract talent. The NSC is the White House team that coordinates advice and guidance that reaches the president. Here to talk about this is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about what you've learned.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, until now, this has been one of the most coveted jobs in national security and foreign policy. But under this administration, people are, essentially, staying away because they feel that U.S. foreign policy has become too confrontational and politicized. I spoke to about 12 current and former officials, many of whom actually worked in the Trump administration. And they tell me that in the past, they took a lot of pride and worked at the NSC regardless of the party in power because they believed that the president deserved the best advice. But that's not necessarily the case right now.

SHAPIRO: As we've reported so much on the turnover at the top of the administration, are you saying that the same is true at the lower levels at the NSC, where journalists might not be paying much attention day in, day out?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, there is a little bit of a difference. There's, obviously, a lot of turnover at the National Security Council because these are temporary positions, typically one job - one-year jobs that can be renewed. But for decades, getting to the National Security Council was one of the most prestigious and sought after positions in U.S. foreign policy. It's a tough job, but people also need to be committed. And I spoke with Fernando Cutz, who served as senior director at the NSC. And he described it this way.

FERNANDO CUTZ: Going to the NSC is not an easy thing by any means, right? You're working all sorts of hours. Essentially 24/7, you're either on call or in the office and, at times, both. And, you know, you're not getting paid any more money.

ORDOÑEZ: What's happening now is that these assignments that previously would have drawn two dozen applicants in inquiries are now getting very little interest.

SHAPIRO: And to be clear, these are generally rotations from people who already work in government at the State Department or at different agencies.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: So what is the White House saying about this?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, they dismissed the concerns, as you'd expect. A senior NSC official told me that the NSC continues to attract some of the most talented people in federal government and that they're proud of the work they've done on issues such as the Middle East, on reducing tensions in North Korea and bringing home U.S. hostages from abroad. One official told me that people come here because they believe in the policies that they work on. It's just not a highly political place. They try to stay away from politics. On the other hand, I've spoken to a lot of people in this world who tell me that it's become common knowledge among career leaders that it's important to protect the up-and-coming talent from getting associated with some of this administration's decisions.

SHAPIRO: Why is this more than just palace intrigue? Why does this matter?

ORDOÑEZ: These are select individuals. They are the cream of the crop who literally have their hands on the policies that the president is pushing. They are critical to ensuring that the president has the best analysis, information, that all of that works it up to his desk.

SHAPIRO: Would hiring Robert O'Brien to be the White House national security adviser help with this problem?

ORDOÑEZ: I'm sure he will make some changes. But he - you know, he really can't replace everyone. Some people inside are, obviously, very hopeful for O'Brien. But I spoke with John Gans, who wrote a book about the National Security Council. He called it "The White House Warriors" (ph). He said that O'Brien doesn't have the highest profile or deep experience in national security it's - that some of the past advisers have had, so his staff is going to be critical.

JOHN GANS: If he doesn't have that sort of public reputation, deep relationships with his cabinet colleagues or a deep relation with the president, the staff can give the national security adviser a shot. He can get ideas. He can get intelligence. He can get muscle from them to try and drive his ideas through, outflank cabinet secretaries, do all those kinds of things.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, but as Gans told me, if O'Brien doesn't have a strong staff or a staff that is sort of kind of leaving or putting a drag on him, that can be another handicap working in this job. And, you know, this is a very, very sensitive time, when the United States is in the midst of a standoff with Iran, a denuclearization push in North Korea and a trade battle with China.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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