After Bolton fireworks, Trump picks low-key Robert O’Brien for top job

By Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump picked U.S. hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien on Wednesday as his fourth White House national security adviser, turning to a low-key choice for the position after the boisterous tenure of John Bolton.

O’Brien’s selection was a sign of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s clout with the president, with U.S. officials saying Pompeo had made clear he would be happy with either O’Brien or another candidate, former deputy national security adviser Ricky Waddell.

“I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!” Trump said in a tweet.

Aides said Trump had gotten to know O’Brien through his work as the U.S. envoy for hostage negotiations and admired his ability to get hostages returned from North Korea and Turkey.

The job most recently took him to Sweden in a bid to get the American rapper known professionally as A$AP Rocky out of jail on an assault charge.

A source close to the White House said Trump wanted to pick a new adviser who would be able to get along well with Pompeo after the secretary of state sometimes struggled with Bolton.

O’Brien, the source said, “is a low-profile, articulate negotiator who has a strong relationship with Pompeo.”

O’Brien follows in the footsteps of three other national security advisers: Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster and, most recently, Bolton, who clashed with the president over a host of issues from Iran to Afghanistan to North Korea.

Bolton parted ways with Trump a little more than a week ago, his stormy ending coming shortly after he disagreed with the prospect of the president easing some sanctions on Iran, a person close to Bolton said.

Within the National Security Council, O’Brien’s critical task will be to stabilize a sprawling foreign policy apparatus where morale has taken a major hit since Trump took office, according to an NSC insider.

Trump’s abrupt firing of Bolton added to a sense of unease among NSC staff. A key question is whether O’Brien will reinstate the inter-agency coordinating role for which the NSC was originally conceived but which was largely put on ice during Bolton’s tenure, the source said.

For Trump, O’Brien represents a low-key choice for the job, a sign that the president was happy to have someone without the television starpower of Bolton.

O’Brien is an attorney from Los Angeles who served as a foreign policy adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and 2016 candidate Scott Walker. He has handled a number of high-profile legal cases and previously served in several State Department positions, including as an alternative representative to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005.

O’Brien has been a fan of the recently departed Bolton after the two worked together when Bolton was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 during George W. Bush’s presidency.

In a December 2016 column for radio host Hugh Hewitt’s website, O’Brien called Bolton “a formidable diplomat and a patriot” in recommending the newly elected Trump pick Bolton for a high-profile assignment.

“John’s job as our man at the UN was never easy, often exhausting and painfully slow at points. But John, the definition of a diplomat, never grew physically tired or ever lost his temper with other diplomats or the mission’s staff,” O’Brien wrote.

Trump in March had complimented O’Brien for doing a “fantastic job” after gaining the release of American hostage Danny Burch in Yemen.

People close to the White House said Trump was looking for someone who would manage the national security process, voice opinions behind the scenes but not go public with differences.

One of the most prominent hostage cases O’Brien has worked on is that of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist believed by the U.S. government to be alive who was abducted in Syria in August 2012 while reporting on the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, praised what they described as O’Brien’s quiet, dogged efforts to win their son’s release.

“He’s kept us informed and been regularly in touch,” Marc Tice told Reuters in a telephone interview from his Houston home. “With Robert in this new role, Austin’s return can happen even sooner.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Lisa Shumaker and Tom Brown)

Iran says U.S. should avoid ‘warmongers’ after Bolton departure

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, September 11, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Wednesday Washington should distance itself from “warmongers” after the resignation of hawkish White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Tehran stood by its demand that sanctions be lifted before any talks.

The departure of Bolton removes one of the strongest advocates of a hard line towards Iran from President Donald Trump’s White House and raises the prospect of steps to open up negotiations after more than a year of escalating tension.

“America should understand that … it should distance itself from warmongers,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying on Wednesday, without mentioning Bolton.

“Iran’s policy of resistance will not change as long as our enemy (the United States) continues to put pressure on Iran,” said Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two landslide elections in Iran on promises to open it up to the world.

Last year, the United States pulled out of an international accord between Iran and world powers under which Tehran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for access to world trade.

Washington says the agreement reached by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was too weak because many of its terms expire in a decade and it does not cover non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s missile program and regional behavior.

The White House has followed what the administration calls a policy of “maximum pressure”, including sanctions aimed at halting all Iranian oil exports, saying its ultimate aim is to push Tehran to the table for talks on a new, tougher deal.

Immediately after Bolton’s departure, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that Trump could meet with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N, meeting with “no preconditions”.

“SIGH OF RELIEF”

Iran has rejected talks unless sanctions are lifted first. It said on Wednesday that Bolton’s exit had not changed that position.

“The departure of … Bolton from President Donald Trump’s administration will not push Iran to reconsider talking with the U.S.,” Iran’s U.N. envoy, Majid Takhteravanchi, was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif slammed the United States for ordering new sanctions on Iran despite Bolton’s departure.

“As the world … was breathing a sigh of relief over the ouster of #B_Team’s henchman in the White House, (Washington) declared further escalation of #EconomicTerrorism (sanctions) against Iran,” Zarif tweeted. “Thirst for war —maximum pressure— should go with the warmonger-in-chief (Bolton).”

Zarif has often said that a so-called “B-team” including Bolton could goad Trump into conflict with Tehran.

The United States on Tuesday announced sanctions on a “wide range of terrorists and their supporters”, including Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Iran says it hopes to save the deal but cannot do so indefinitely if it gets none of its economic benefits. It has responded to U.S. sanctions with steps to reduce its compliance with the accord and has said it could eventually leave it unless other parties shield its economy from penalties.

“Iran’s commitments to the nuclear deal are proportional to other parties and we will take further steps if necessary,” Rouhani said.

Iran started using advanced centrifuges last week to ramp up output of enriched uranium and reduced its commitments to the nuclear deal, but said it was giving European countries another two months to come up with a plan to protect its economy.

France has proposed giving Iran a multi-billion dollar credit line which would shield it from some impact of U.S. sanctions, although any such deal would require the Trump administration’s tacit approval.

(This story was refiled to correct spelling of ‘weak’ in paragraph 6)

(Additional Reporting by Tuqa Khalid; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff/William Maclean)

U.S. deploying carrier, bombers to Middle East to deter Iran: Bolton

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Strait of Gibraltar, entering the Mediterranean Sea as it continues operations in the 6th Fleet area of responsibility in this April 13, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Clint Davis/Handout via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack, national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday.

With tensions already high between Washington and Tehran, a U.S. official said the deployment has been ordered “as a deterrence to what has been seen as potential preparations by Iranian forces and its proxies that may indicate possible attacks on U.S. forces in the region.”However, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was not expecting any imminent Iranian attack.

Bolton – who has spearheaded an increasingly hawkish U.S. policy on Iran – said the decision, which could exacerbate problems between the two countries, was meant to send a “clear and unmistakable message” of U.S. resolve to Tehran.

Though he cited no specific Iranian activities that have raised new concerns, Iran has recently warned it would block the Strait of Hormuz if it was barred from using the strategic waterway. About a fifth of the oil consumed globally passes through the strait.

“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces,” Bolton said in a statement.

It marked the latest in a series of moves by President Donald Trump’s administration aimed at ratcheting up pressure on Iran in recent months.

Washington has said it will stop waivers for countries buying Iranian oil, in an attempt to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. It has also blacklisted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, taking the unprecedented step of designating it as a foreign terrorist organization, which Iran has cast as an American provocation.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this April 29, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/Handout via REUTERS

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this April 29, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/Handout via REUTERS

‘UNRELENTING FORCE’

The Trump administration’s efforts to impose political and economic isolation on Tehran began last year when it unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal it and other world powers negotiated with Iran in 2015.

“The United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton said.

Bolton did not provide any further details.

A U.S. Navy statement issued early last month said the aircraft carrier and its accompanying convoy of ships had steamed out of Norfolk, Virginia, on April 1 “for a regularly scheduled deployment”, but it did not give any destination at the time.

While it is not rare for the United States to have aircraft carriers in the Middle East, Bolton’s language could increase tensions.

The threat late last month from the IRGC to close the Strait of Hormuz followed a U.S. announcement that it would end exemptions granted last year to eight buyers of Iranian oil and demanding they stop purchases by May 1 or face sanctions.

European governments have opposed Washington’s reinstatement of sanctions on Iran.

A senior Trump administration official said at the time that any aggressive move by Iran in the strait would be unjustified and unacceptable.

Iran has made threats to block the waterway in the past, without acting on them.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali; Editing by Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

No Trump-Putin meeting while Russia holds Ukraine ships: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the meeting to discuss preparation to mark the anniversary of the allied victory in the World War II at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 12, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There will be no meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin while Russia still holds Ukrainian ships and sailors seized near Crimea, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

“I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and the crews are released,” Bolton told reporters at a Washington think tank.

Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their combined crew of 24 last month off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea and accused them of illegally entering Russian waters.

Ukraine has said Russia captured the two small gunboats and one tugboat illegally and accused Moscow of military aggression.

Two Ukrainian navy captains being held in a Russian jail have refused to provide testimony because they consider themselves prisoners of war, their lawyers said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Top Trump aide in Pakistan says terrorism must be fought ‘in all forms’

FILE PHOTO - Newly named National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as U.S. President Donald Trump makes the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S.

By Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser met Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief on Monday and emphasized “the need to confront terrorism in all its forms”, while praising democratic and economic development.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed hope that the new U.S. administration might mediate between Pakistan and longtime foe India over the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

H.R. McMaster was on his first South Asian trip since the new U.S. administration took office in January, earlier stopping in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s war-ravaged neighbor to the west.

Official statements on Monday gave little indication of whether the Trump administration would adopt a new, tougher policy on Pakistan, as some Afghan officials and Islamabad’s arch-foe India would like.

Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of providing Taliban insurgents shelter, and perhaps support, on its side of the countries’ porous border.

Pakistan denies it shelters the Afghan Taliban and says it fights against all the region’s jihadist groups with equal vigor.

McMaster – a U.S. Army general who served in the American-led international force in Afghanistan – indicated frustration with Pakistan in an interview with an Afghan news channel on Sunday.

“As all of us have hoped for many, many years, we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past,” he told TOLO News in Kabul.

“And the best way to pursue their interest in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through diplomacy not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”

In Pakistan, McMaster’s gave no interviews and the official statement on his visit was more diplomatically couched.

“General McMaster expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s democratic and economic development, and stressed the need to confront terrorism in all its forms,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

McMaster met Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa as well as top foreign policy and national security officials.

“The prime minister conveyed Pakistan’s readiness to work with the international community to explore ways in which the Afghan crisis can be resolved,” Sharif’s office said in a statement.

It also said Sharif would welcome U.S. mediation in Pakistan’s disputes with India.

“(Sharif) welcomed President Trump’s willingness to help India and Pakistan resolve their difference particularly on Kashmir and noted that this could go a long way in bringing sustainable peace, security and prosperity to the region.”

The Indian-administered side of Kashmir has seen a recent spike in separatist violence amid accusations of brutality against supporters of the 28-year-old insurgency that India accuses Pakistan of fomenting. Pakistan denies the accusation.

The nuclear-armed rivals have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

Outspoken general named Trump’s top security adviser

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with new National Security adviser

By Jeff Mason and Patricia Zengerle

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday named Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster as his new national security adviser, choosing a military officer known for speaking his mind and challenging his superiors.

McMaster is a highly regarded military tactician and strategic thinker, but his selection surprised some observers who wondered how the officer, whose Army career stalled at times for his questioning of authority, would deal with a White House that has not welcomed criticism.

“He is highly respected by everybody in the military and we’re very honored to have him,” Trump told reporters in West Palm Beach where he spent the weekend. “He’s a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”

One subject on which Trump and McMaster could soon differ is Russia. McMaster shares the consensus view among the U.S. national security establishment that Russia is a threat and an antagonist to the United States, while the man whom McMaster is replacing, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, appeared to view it more as a potential geopolitical partner.

Trump in the past has expressed a willingness to engage with Russia more than his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Flynn was fired as national security adviser on Feb. 13 after reports emerged that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about speaking to Russia’s ambassador to the United States about U.S. sanctions before Trump’s inauguration.

The ouster, coming so early in Trump’s administration, was another upset for a White House that has been hit by miscues, including the controversial rollout of a travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, since the Republican president took office on Jan. 20.

The national security adviser is an independent aide to the president and does not require confirmation by the U.S. Senate. He has broad influence over foreign policy and attends National Security Council meetings along with the heads of the State Department, the Department of Defense and key security agencies.

NOT AFRAID TO QUESTION THE BOSS

Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent Trump critic, praised McMaster as an “outstanding” choice.

“I give President Trump great credit for this decision,” McCain said in a statement.

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, Michael McFaul, a Democrat, praised McMaster on Twitter as “terrific” and said McMaster “will not be afraid to question his boss.”

McMaster, who flew back to the Washington area from Florida with Trump on Air Force One, will remain on active military duty, the White House said.

Trump also said Keith Kellogg, a retired U.S. Army general who has been serving as the acting national security adviser, as chief of staff to the National Security Council. John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would be asked to serve the administration in another capacity, Trump said.

“He has a good number of ideas that I must tell you I agree very much with,” Trump said of Bolton, who served in Republican President George W. Bush’s administration.

Kellogg and Bolton were among those in contention as Trump spent the long Presidents Day weekend considering his options for replacing Flynn. His first choice, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, turned down the job last week.

McMaster, 54, is a West Point graduate known as “H.R.,” with a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014, partly because of his willingness to buck the system.

A combat veteran, he gained renown in the first Gulf War – and was awarded a Silver Star – after he commanded a small troop of the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment that destroyed a much larger Iraqi Republican Guard force in 1991 in a place called 73 Easting, for its map coordinates, in what many consider the biggest tank battle since World War Two.

As one fellow officer put it, referring to Trump’s inner circle of aides and speaking on condition of anonymity, the Trump White House “has its own Republican Guard, which may be harder for him to deal with than the Iraqis were.” The Iraqi Republican Guard was the elite military force of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Trump relies on a tight, insular group of advisers, who at times appear to have competing political agendas. Senior adviser Steve Bannon has asserted his influence by taking a seat on the National Security Council.

McMaster’s fame grew after his 1997 book “Dereliction of Duty” criticized the country’s military and political leadership for poor leadership during the Vietnam War.

Trump’s pick was praised by one of the president’s strongest backers in the U.S. Congress, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who called McMaster “one of the finest combat leaders of our generation and also a great strategic mind.”

“CRITICISM AND FEEDBACK”

In a July 14, 2014, interview with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, where Fort Benning is located, McMaster, then the base commander, said: “Some people have a misunderstanding about the Army.

“Some people think, hey, you’re in the military and everything is super-hierarchical and you’re in an environment that is intolerable of criticism and people don’t want frank assessments.

“I think the opposite is the case. … And the commanders that I’ve worked for, they want frank assessments, they want criticism and feedback.”

That attitude was not always shared by his superiors, and it led to his being passed over for promotion to brigadier general twice, in 2006 and 2007.

On McMaster’s third and last try, General David Petraeus – who at one point was also on Trump’s candidate list for national security adviser – returned from Iraq to head the promotion board that finally gave McMaster his first general’s star.

Then a colonel, McMaster was commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment that in the spring of 2005 captured, held and began to stabilize Tal Afar on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The city was held by Sunni extremists, a crossing point between Syria and Iraq for jihadists who started as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and morphed into Islamic State after he was killed.

McMaster’s preparation of the regiment is legendary: He trained his soldiers in Iraqi culture, the differences among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Turkomen, and had them read books on the history of the region and counterinsurgency strategy.

It was a sharp change from the “kill and capture” tactics the United States had used in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, and to which the Obama administration returned in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The strategy was largely a success, although McMaster’s use of it and especially his willingness to acknowledge that Iraqis had some legitimate grievances against one another and the occupying coalition forces, did not endear him to his superiors and helped delay his promotion to brigadier general.

The strategy did not survive the departure of McMaster’s troops, with Tal Afar falling into the hands of Sunni militants. Along with the west part of Mosul, it is now a key objective in the battle to rid Iraq of Islamic State.

(Additional reporting by John Walcott and Sarah Lynch in Washington; Writing by Frances Kerry and James Oliphant; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)