In a rare, in-depth interview, O & # 39; Brien acknowledged to CNN that he has been out of sight of many public events in the White House, but he pushed back on any notion that he is absent, saying he has met Trump almost daily to discuss the virus and is in continuous contact with foreign allies to coordinate the response.
However, he said that the administration, as well as large parts of the world and scientific experts, took the time to understand the severity of the threat.
"To begin with, no one understood the magnitude of this crisis," said O & # 39; Brien.
As head of the National Security Council of the White House, it is up to the national security adviser to sift through tiles of intelligence from across the government to flag potential threats to the president early, and in times of crisis to coordinate a response from the government.
In his interview with CNN, O & # 39; Brien insisted that senior national security officials have been on top of the corona virus from early on and met daily to discuss the virus starting in mid-January. O & # 39; Brien said he first briefed the president on the potential domestic threat it posed on January 23, and that he is still in daily contact with Trump about the swift situation.
"We don't think we're going to be at the forefront of the news," O & # 39; Brien told CNN, adding it's not his personal style to make much news. "We want to give quiet advice."
Yet many around Washington believe that when it comes to the corona virus, O & Brien's advice has been too quiet and too reactive. A person familiar with how O & # 39; Brien is perceived by White House officials called him, "the least influential national security adviser."
A senior Republican official familiar with the White House workforce added that O & # 39; Brien was not involved in any of the talks or meetings one might expect the national security adviser to attend, and that his absence was "inconceivable" during a pandemic.
"The [national security adviser] should run a national security group, and instead of what we have is uncoordinated, we are shooting from the hip decisions on tactical issues, "said Samantha Vinograd, who was senior adviser to Tom Donilon when he was President Barack Obama's national security adviser.
"Historically, you would see the national security adviser take part in this action, really since day one," said John Gans Jr., a former Pentagon spokesman and author of the White House Warriors book: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War. "
"I think there are a lot of people in Washington who are just: Where has national security adviser been in all this?"
Performs over affect
O & # 39; Brien arrives at the White House every morning at 9 PM, much later than his predecessors, after spending an early morning at home reading newspapers and talking to the NSC president and staff. As of Monday, O & # 39; Brien will have a SCIF, a secure room for reviewing classified or other highly sensitive information, installed in the home.
In the meantime, he uses a secure phone line at home, and an armored SUV with a secure phone when he's out of the office, and sometimes takes some of the more sensitive calls outside his house in the SUV.
Having no SCIF at home has meant that O & # 39; Brien often accesses top secret Presidential Daily Briefings later than most of his predecessors. But since Trump himself did not come down from the White House until after 10 p.m., O & # 39; Brien said that a later schedule fights better with the boss.
O & # 39; Brien is attending intelligence briefing with Trump, but details of how he interacts with the president in that environment remain unclear, and he did not elaborate during his interview with CNN.
Former National Security Advisers looked to the intelligence of the Presidential Daily Briefings to the president – in any way they could – as crucial to their job, said Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year-old veteran of the intelligence community. President Richard Nixon may not even have the coveted intelligence at all, if it wasn't for his influential national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, Pfeiffer said.
"That's the job. You have to be able to see the whole field because the president doesn't have time to do it," Gans said.
"Robert's shtick is & # 39; I'm an employee. … My goal is not to tell the president what his agenda is & # 39 ;," said an administration officer. "He will begin by exposing himself to the president's stated opinions."
Earlier this year, O & # 39; Brien told CNN that Trump is getting advice from his advisers, but ultimately "makes his own decisions."
It is a stark contrast to how Bolton operated. An experienced Washington attacker, the pugnacious Bolton was known to arrive at the office around 6pm and to be an effective and eager debater, sometimes leading to heated discussions with Trump and the rest of the national security team.
"Bolton is a tough guy to follow," said a source familiar with the internal White House dynamics. "With John Bolton, there was incredible depth in just about every issue because he read so much and absorbed so much intelligence."
O & # 39; Brien is also seen as lacking Bolton's political savvy, which was bolstered by his long-standing connections with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Still, O & # 39; Brien is seen as having a closer relationship with the president's family, especially Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.
O & # 39; Brien "got into an impossible situation," said another administration officer, noting the president's dissatisfaction with NSC, which he viewed as the source of his impeachment problems.
Postpones to his deputy
Early on, O & # 39; Brien was assigned the task of his deputy, Pottinger, to lead the National Security Council's efforts to fight the virus. O & # 39; Brien told CNN that Pottinger was an obvious choice to lead the charge on the council. A former Marine and an Asia expert, the SARS outbreak in China covered reporters for the Wall Street Journal in the early 2000s. O & # 39; Brien says that by delegating to Pottinger, he has been released to oversee other non-virus threats, such as Iran's recent aggression.
O & # 39; Brien says that he and Pottinger are in constant communication over the corona virus. "I am fortunate to have a deputy to get involved in this case," said O & # 39; Brien. "He knows the things extra well." O & # 39; Brien says he still personally informs Trump about coronavirus news.
From the beginning, Pottinger suggested taking a harsh response to China for its failure to warn the world earlier about the virus and the risk of infection. He pushed for travel restrictions for China and for labeling the virus "Wuhan virus."
In the eyes of his national security colleagues, Pottering's efforts were efficient and smart. But colleagues in the West Wing looked at them as politically misleading and problematic. "He loses allies," said an administration official about Pottinger.
To carve out a role
Vacancies have also damaged the White House's response to the virus. A former administrative official said that as the coronavirus outbreak spread to the United States, the absence of an authorized home security adviser would likely have helped the administration fail to understand the size of the outbreak.
After Tom Bossert was pushed out of the job in 2018, the role was never truly filled in its original form, according to several former executives. There were people who still had similar titles, but with far less influence.
The role of security adviser for the homeland proved crucial to the Obama administration's response to the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and during the outbreak of Ebola in late 2014.
John Brennan, who at that time was Obama's security adviser to his homeland and eventually became CIA director, led the government's interagency response to swine flu. Lisa Monaco, Obama's home security adviser and counterterrorism adviser, reported directly to Obama and his then national security adviser, Susan Rice, during the Ebola outbreak, according to a former Obama administration official involved in the response.
Both Monaco and Rice regularly attended the Ebola labor board meetings, including those involved in protecting the homeland, the official said.
At that time, the National Security Council understood that there was a very close relationship between what was happening outside the United States and what was happening in the United States, and we always had a very integrated strategy that needed to involve our national tools and international responses, "said this person.
Countless Trump advisers, past and present, have said that the president does not give his Presidents Daily Briefings a careful read, and it is generally up to his top advisers to flag important issues for him. Onus, according to several former national security officials who spoke to CNN, was therefore on O & # 39; Brien to fill the gaps.
"He needs to help connect the dots in the government and help connect the dots between the information," said Gans, the former Pentagon spokesman and author. "This is the first major crisis of the post-World War II era where NSC has not really operated and engaged at full capacity."
CNN's Dana Bash, Alex Marquardt, Zachary Cohen, Jamie Gangel and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.