IPS hosts webinar with Grenell and National Security Adviser O'Brien

“President Trump sends his best to Carnegie Mellon,” was how National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien opened an on-the-record webinar with the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) on Oct. 27. The Zoom event, held one week before the 2020 general election, was co-hosted by IPS Director Kiron Skinner and IPS Senior Fellow Richard Grenell. Seated in the White House Situation Room, O’Brien shared the President’s greetings to Skinner and Grenell, both of whom have held top diplomatic positions within the Trump Administration.

Speaking to over a hundred virtual attendees from the Carnegie Mellon community, Ambassador O’Brien defended the foreign policy record of the vulnerable incumbent President Trump. O’Brien contrasted the President’s “peace through strength” doctrine with the “era of strategic patience” that preceded Trump’s first term in the White House. “Strategic patience” often refers to the Obama administration’s policy of gradually increasing sanctions on North Korea until it agreed to negotiations regarding its nuclear weapons program.

In his year-long tenure at the White House, O’Brien has proven a staunch ally to Trump, even on his most controversial decisions. In December 2019, he defended the President’s decision to pardon Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was charged with stabbing an injured 17-year-old ISIS prisoner to death and shooting at least two unarmed Iraqi civilians without provocation. Back in January, O’Brien claimed without evidence, that Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was conspiring to stage an attack on Americans before he was killed by an airstrike that President Trump ordered. Later, the White House released a memo that contradicted that message, stating the assassination was to “deter Iran from conducting or supporting...attacks” on the United States rather than to prevent an imminent threat.

Throughout the webinar, Grenell and O’Brien hyped each other up about their diplomatic achievements. Grenell credited O’Brien for his work as the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. O’Brien praised Grenell’s contribution to the establishment of normal economic relations between Kosovo and Serbia. He also noted President Trump’s close bond with Grenell, saying, “other than Ivanka [Trump], there’s no one the President more enjoys spending time with than Ric [Grenell].” In August, Grenell was tapped as LGBT adviser for the Republican National Convention and has since followed the Trump campaign at indoor ‘Trump Pride’ events in battleground states across the country.

Grenell and O’Brien’s most recent collaboration was not discussed in the event. Under authorization from O’Brien, Grenell recently met with top Venezuelan official Jorge Rodriguez, according to sources that spoke anonymously with Bloomberg News. During this encounter outside Mexico City, Grenell allegedly sought to negotiate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s swift exit from power prior to the U.S. elections. Neither Secretary of State Mike Pompeo nor the State Department Envoy to Venezuela were alerted about the trip until after its occurrence. Grenell did not immediately reply to a request for comment on that story.

Throughout the question and answer session following O’Brien’s initial statement, Grenell, Skinner, and O’Brien extolled President Trump’s foreign policy. Both IPS faculty members claimed that the President’s policies abroad appeal to people across the political spectrum. Justifying that Trump has “left-wing” bona fides, Grenell cited Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-Un and Skinner brought up the Israeli-UAE normalization agreement. O’Brien dismissed claims that America is a declining power, boldly predicting that “this is gonna be an American century” due to our “strong military” and rising GDP. The U.S. is projected to spend around $934 billion on the military in 2020-2021, while high GDP numbers mask a devastating eviction crisis and the millions of U.S. taxpayers without health insurance who face a pandemic infecting 89,000 Americans daily. O’Brien serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force and himself contracted the virus in July.

Grenell recently published a piece in IPS’s Center for International Relations and Politics (CIRP) journal, entitled “The Trump Turn: Shaping the Next Decade of American Foreign Policy.” In it, he argues that the future of diplomacy lies in “remaking” the world order to “reflect U.S. national interests.” Arguing for a “balance of power” reminiscent of the Cold War era, Grenell asserts that the Trump administration has sought “to reshape a more stable and favorable global system” by embracing competition and rejecting broad international cooperation. Grenell’s views complement those of Skinner, the head of IPS who once described U.S.-China relations as a “fight with a really different civilization” while serving as Policy Planning Director at the State Department. Their nationalistic perspectives represent the core of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.