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Transcript: Robert O’Brien on "Face the Nation," Sept. 24, 2023

The following is a transcript of an interview with former national security adviser Robert O’Brien that aired Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, on “Face the Nation.”


MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to Robert O’Brien. He served as national security adviser under former President Trump and he joins us this morning from Park City, Utah. Ambassador, it’s good to have you here with us.

ROBERT O’BRIEN: Nice to be with you, Margaret. Thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about a number of national security matters. But I want to start on this idea of a potential government shutdown. National security wise, what do you think the message is to the world when basic matters of governance seem politically insurmountable, and the government shuts down?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: Well, what we used to say in the NSC and President Trump’s administration was economic security is national security. And we’ve got too big of a debt and we got to get the debt under control. I think Speaker McCarthy has done a great job and negotiated a good deal. And I think it’d be great if the Republicans got behind Speaker McCarthy. But I understand why there’s concern over the size of the debt. And I understand the- the- the frustration of some of the GOP members. I mean, it’s understandable.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah, I mean, Republicans have objected to even passing defense spending at this point. Aren’t we in a sort of dangerous moment?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: Well, I came out in favor of passing the NDAA. And I think a lot of other conservatives like Mike Gallagher and Mike Waltz and some others did so I think we need to get that defense defense bill passed immediately.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were the hostage envoy under President Trump before you became his National Security Adviser. And you did help bring three citizens home from Iran. This week, we saw a number of Americans return in a very happy reunion. Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, why wasn’t the last administration able to get them out? Why is it so hard to bring home Americans from Iran?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: Well, we had unprecedented success in the Trump administration. As you know, Margaret, we brought home over 58 hostages from countries all over the world, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and- but we had a ground rule, we wouldn’t pay ransom. And, like I was so pleased to see Siamak and Murad and the others come home, I felt like I failed them by not getting them home. But we weren’t gonna pay $6 billion, we weren’t gonna pay a billion plus per hostage because that creates a market for hostages, it makes your blue passport worth a billion dollars. And so I’m concerned that Americans traveling abroad are going to be targeted by countries like Russia and China and Iran, but also terrorist organizations who know that they can get a big ransom if we- if we pay these sorts of fees. And we just weren’t prepared to do it. But we had unprecedented success bringing Americans home from all over the world. The- the other issue, Margaret, is what is Iran going to do with that money? We saw this with the JCPOA. They took that money and they spent it on terrorism and on ballistic missiles on nuclear programs. I’m afraid they’re gonna build more drones that kill Ukrainians with the money we just gave them. So I’m thrilled to see Siamak and Murad and the others home. But I’m very concerned about the look of the deal internationally.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, as you know, the current administration would argue that those funds are being held in a restricted account in Qatar, just like they were held in a restricted account in South Korea under the Trump administration, where Iran did have access. So they had difficulty getting to that money. Why is that not a sufficient level of protection?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: Well, the President of Iran came to the UNGA last week and said he’ll use the money the way he pleases. It’s the government money of the people of Iran, and he’ll use it however he wants. And we have to understand, Margaret, money is fungible. So the money that they’re spending now on children’s hospitals and on food, they’ll use that for the military, and for terrorism and take this money and replace it with the other program. So money is fungible, this money is going to the Iran regime. It’s a terrorist regime. It’s the largest state sponsor of terrorism, and it’s going to kill a lot of people, unfortunately.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Should travel be banned to Iran?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: I believe so. Absolutely. The problem is- is this happened after the JCPOA when we paid hundreds of millions per hostage, the price went up under the- for- the price went up from Obama to Biden, but as soon as they let a couple of hostages go, Jason Rezaian and others, they just restocked the pool of hostages. And they went and took a few more dual citizens who are visiting family in Iran and took them hostage. So, we’ve got to stop Americans going to Iran. But we got to start thinking about Americans going to China and Russia as well, where they’re taking hostages, and using this against us.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about national security as it relates to the upcoming US election as well. You have been very clear that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, you helped the transition of power between administrations. CNN reported you considered resigning after January the sixth. Is that report true?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: That’s an inaccurate report. I had never considered resigning. My feeling as national security advisor is it that you took the job for the good days and the bad days and–

MARGARET BRENNAN: — That was a pretty bad day.

ROBERT O’BRIEN: That was bad day but you know, we had the Abraham Accords. We had Serbia, Kosovo. We got NATO to spend money defending themselves, which is now helping Ukraine. So President Trump had a really, really successful foreign policy run. But there were bad days too. And that was a bad day, but I was gonna stick around for the President and for the American people. And I fortunately had a lot of senators and congressmen who reached out and said, “please stay.” We’ve got foreign adversaries, China and Russia, who want to take advantage of the chaos. And so Mike Pompeo and John Ratcliffe and myself, the national security team, Chris Miller over at defense, we stuck around and we sent a strong message to the Chinese, we sent a strong message- message to the Russians, that the American people are united, that we remain fundamentally strong. And we’re not going to let them take advantage of any domestic political discord in the United States. And I think that served the President well, and I think it served the American people well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, given Donald Trump’s role in the events leading to that day, I wonder if you would serve in a second Trump administration?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: Look, I had a great run as national security adviser and as a hostage envoy and I served the country well, I think. But you always have to wait and see what the president of the United States asks you to do and what your family wants to do. But I grew up in a household with a dad who was a Marine and a mom, who was a big patriot, by the way, it’s her 80th birthday today, so happy birthday mom. And my feeling is if the president asks you to serve, and I’ve got kids who are serving in the military, you salute and say yes. But that’s really up to President Trump if he wins, which right now, according to The Washington Post, he’s up by 10 points. So it looks good for him. But that’s up to him and my family.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You don’t have any doubts?

ROBERT O’BRIEN: Well, I think there’s gonna be a great team. And I think we need to return- America, looks weak now. We’re not weak, we’re fundamentally strong. But America looks very weak right now. We have to return to a posture of peace or strength, or we’re going to have real problems with China, Russia, with Iran in the future. And so I think anyone who believes in peace through strength and is asked to serve and has experience to do so should- should do so and defend America. Absolutely.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And I know you cannot talk about the details of the two investigations brought by the Special Counsel Jack Smith, because you were subpoenaed, so we have to leave that part of the conversation there. Robert O’Brien, thank you very much for joining us on Face the Nation. We’ll be right back.

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