Transcript: Robert O’Brien on “Face the Nation,” October 25, 2020

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The following is a transcript of an interview with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien that aired Sunday, October 25, 2020, on “Face the Nation.”


MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to the White House and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. Good morning to you, Ambassador.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER AMBASSADOR ROBERT O’BRIEN: Good morning, MARGARET. Great to be with you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Once again, the virus has put some of the very top levels of our government at risk. This time, the vice president, we’ve learned, has had close contact with COVID positive staffers. Yet the White House says he’s still going to travel. He’s being classified as an essential worker. How is campaigning essential work?

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AMB. O’BRIEN: Well, free elections are the foundation of our democracy. So I think campaigning and voting are- are about the most essential thing we can be doing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Couldn’t you do it virtually to be safer?

AMB. O’BRIEN: Well, look, I think- I think he’s taking all the precautions. And my understanding is he’s tested negative as- as- has the second lady. I did speak with Marc Short today who tested positive, the vice president’s chief of staff. And I know he’s been a frequent guest on your show. He’s doing well. The symptoms are mild so far. And I wished him, and I know you and everyone else does, a speedy recovery from this virus.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We certainly do. But these climbing numbers around the country and the news that, once again, the White House is a hotspot is deeply concerning. The chief of staff, Marc Short- excuse me, Mark Meadows was on another network, on CNN, this morning and said we are not going to get control of the pandemic. You are on the COVID task force. Is that the Trump administration policy now that it’s just out of control?

AMB. O’BRIEN: Well, what we’re seeing is we’re seeing the pandemic- and I want to make clear to all your viewers and to you again, MARGARET, this came to us from China. And- and China did not behave properly from the outset of this, and–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. But it’s been here for eight months.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –and it’s all over the world as well. MARGARET, as you know, it’s spiking in Europe. It’s running rampant through Europe. I was just in Brazil, in South America to sign three- three new trade deals with- with Brazil to help Brazil and America get out of the- the COVID recession. It’s running rampant through Brazil. This is a terrible virus. At the end of the day, what- what we need to do is we need to flatten the curve. And we need to protect the most vulnerable. We need to protect the elderly and those who are infirm and have preexisting conditions. We need to protect them. But ultimately, the only thing that’s going to stop this virus, there’s no magic way. Masks won’t do it alone. More ventilators won’t do it alone. What will is a vaccine. And we’re on track to have a vaccine for Americans in less than a year. It’s really incredible. And it can be therapeutic so that if you come down with the virus–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Less than a year? When is that exactly?

AMB. O’BRIEN: Well, I- I think we’re going have something very, very shortly. And I’m hoping by the end of the year. And as you know, there are multiple companies with very promising vaccines that are in the final phases of- of trials. But what we’ve done is we put together with Operation Warp Speed, we bought all these vaccines ahead of time, so- so when one proves efficacious, the US military is going to distribute those all over the country. And eventually we’ll do what we did with ventilators. Remember when, MARGARET, when I was first on your show and people were concerned that there won’t be enough ventilators for Americans. Now we’ve got over 100,000 and we were able to send ventilators all over the world to save people’s lives around the world. We’re going to do the same thing with the vaccines.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well–

AMB. O’BRIEN: And we’re going to- and we’re going to get therapeutics as well. That’s how we’re going to defeat this virus–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –that came from China.  And in the meantime, we’ve got to do everything we can to protect the- the infirm and the elderly.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So in the meantime- in the meantime, should masks be mandatory at the White House?

AMB. O’BRIEN: Well, people do wear masks for the White House, and- and- and–

MARGARET BRENNAN: But they’re not mandatory, as we know.

AMB. O’BRIEN: Well- well–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Some of the staffers to the vice president don’t wear them.

AMB. O’BRIEN: Well, a lot of people do wear them. And at the NSC, they’re mandatory. In my shop, they’re mandatory. And we’ve had them- they’ve been on the watch floor at the White House Situation Room from the very outset of this.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

AMB. O’BRIEN:  But even masks, MARGARET, I- I was one of the early proponents, as you know. I called this thing early. I wore a mask early, and I still got COVID and survived it. I want everyone to know our hearts in the president’s heart just goes out to the people that have lost their loved ones and- and the families that have an empty chair.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

AMB. O’BRIEN: We- we love them. God bless them. We’re praying for them. But the way to stop this virus, again, that came to us from China are vaccines and therapeutics. And we’re going to have those very soon–

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –because of the strong work of this administration.

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK. CDC says well into 2021.  But I want to ask you about election security. I know you’re very focused on that right now. What do Americans need to know about whether their votes are going to be accurately counted, given the foreign interference the administration highlighted this week? And do we think of Iran, China and Russia as the same in terms of posing a threat?

AMB. O’BRIEN: So- so it’s a great question, MARGARET. And I think the best thing that- that I heard this morning was on- on- at the outset of your show, where you talked about how many people have voted early and how many people are going to vote. The best way for Americans- I- I don’t care what party you’re voting for, what candidate you’re voting for. You know, I’ve got my preference, as you can imagine. But get out and vote. That’s how we defeat our foreign adversaries that are seeking to- to sow discord among Americans. Let’s get out. If you vote early, great. If you vote on Election Day, great. If you vote absentee, great. But get out and vote. That’s how we–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –stop the plans of our adversaries. And I was- I was really pleased to see what you’re doing. As far as what we’re doing, I just held a principals committee- committee meeting last week here at the White House with the heads of all of our agencies, the heads of all the intel organizations, and we are doing everything we can. I want to make a distinction between election interference on Election Day and elect- trying to influence people. So there’s lots of efforts to influence people like these Iranian efforts to hurt the president by sending out these- these emails from the Proud Boys saying that they know how you voted. Your vote is secret. Every American should understand that their vote is secret. And that was an Iranian effort to hurt the president.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that the US intelligence community’s assessment? I know the director of national intelligence said it, but I’ve been told that was his opinion, not the intelligence community’s assessment.

AMB. O’BRIEN: That’s- that’s every assessment I’ve seen. And- and I think you’re seeing the same thing. Microsoft had a report on election interference. So- so or election–

MARGARET BRENNAN: And–

AMB. O’BRIEN:  –influencing. So you’re seeing the Iranians do it. You’re seeing the Russians trolling people on- on Twitter–

MARGARET BRENNAN: And the intelligence community’s conclusion was that Russia was trying to undermine Joe Biden and thus to boost President Trump, which was not specifically said in that press conference this week.

AMB.O’BRIEN: Yeah, I think what all these countries are trying to do and- and China, as well as they’re trying to sow discord among Americans. They’re trying to create chaos, and they’re doing it whatever way they can. So, but that’s–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Specifically–

AMB. O’BRIEN: –election interference. But what I- influence. I want to talk about election interference on Election Day, and that’s something that we’ve taken a very strong position on. We’ve- we’ve told our foreign adversaries that–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –don’t mess with the ballots or the tampering, and it’s very hard for them to do so because we have paper ballot auditing trails for 95% of the votes that are cast–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –all across the country. And secretary of states are doing a great job.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But there- there are about seven states that don’t have that backup system. When it comes to Russia, specifically on this point, we heard from Homeland Security this week that hackers have been able to access state and local governments. And the concern is that by getting into those networks, they could somehow threaten election infrastructure. California–

AMB. O’BRIEN: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: –and Indiana, where two states reported by The Washington Post, having had–

AMB. O’BRIEN: So- so they- they–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –those breaches. Can they change votes?

AMB. O’BRIEN: No, they can’t change votes.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Can they make it harder for you to vote when you show up–

AMB. O’BRIEN: No–

MARGARET BRENNAN: –and you show your I.D.?

AMB. O’BRIEN: No, they can’t do either of those things. And we got a hold of them early on because we’ve got great cyber folks and- and we put a stop to it. But there’s nothing they can do to- to change your vote or to stop you from voting. I was out in Iowa just recently meeting with the Iowa National Guard, and they’ve got a tremendous cyber unit. That National Guard unit has stood up to- to help the secretary of state of Iowa make sure that there’s no cyber interference. And we’ve got that going across all 50 states. So it’s–

MARGARET BRENNAN: You told me last time you were with us that you personally said to Vladimir Putin’s right hand man, don’t change our vote tallies, that’s something we won’t countenance. It looks like Russia is trying to test your limits. What are you going to do about it?

AMB. O’BRIEN: Well, well, well, look, we’re monitoring things very carefully. And I can tell you there’s severe consequences to anyone who attempts to interfere with our elections on Election Day. But- but, MARGARET, what I also want to tell you is we’re also working on other things while we’re doing that. I mean, we had a historic peace agreement in Sudan this week–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –with Sudan and Israel with a historic peace agreement under the president’s direction. Under the president’s direction, we’ve spent this entire weekend, in addition to everything we’re doing on election security, we spent the entire weekend–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –trying to broker peace in between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we will–

AMB. O’BRIEN: And Armenia- and Armenia has accepted a cease fire. Azerbaijan has not yet. We’re- we’re pushing them to do so.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Alright.

AMB. O’BRIEN: So there’s a lot going on with this country in addition to- to the election security issue and–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood.

AMB. O’BRIEN: –the president’s trying to bring peace around the world and- and that’s good for America as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Alright, Ambassador, thank you for giving us that news there. We have to leave it there. We’ll be back in a minute.

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