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Transcript: Robert O'Brien on "Face the Nation," August 9, 2020

O'Brien warns of "severe consequences" for election interference
O'Brien warns of "severe consequences" for el... 09:32

The following is a transcript of an interview with White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien that aired Sunday, August 9, 2020, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to the White House and President Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien. This is his first interview since recovering from coronavirus. Good morning to you, Ambassador. We have just hit five million cases in this country. You were lucky one. You recovered. How are you feeling? And do you have aftereffects?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER ROBERT O'BRIEN: Well, it's always great to be back on your show, MARGARET, but it's especially good to be back now. And look, I've recovered fully and I'm very grateful. I was blessed and had a light case. I want to thank the White House medical team and Dr. Sean Conley for their great care while I suffered through this- this virus. And I also want to thank my colleagues from the president, the vice president, everyone down who was so supportive of me personally. And I hope that anyone else who is suffering from coronavirus, who is away from work, who is quarantined, has the same level of support from their colleagues at their office as I did for mine. So it's a- it's great to be back. And I've been very blessed.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah. 

O'BRIEN: But- but this is a tough thing. It's a- it's a- it's a nasty virus and it's done great damage to our country. And my- my heart goes out to the folks who didn't make it. I was- I was fortunate. But there are a lot of people who didn't make it. There are a lot of people who are suffering greatly as a result of this virus. And- and having been through this, my- my heart really goes out to them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, not all Americans receive the kind of elite care that you were able to. You know, unless you work in Major League Baseball or at the White House, you don't have access to regular asymptomatic testing. That's just not where we are as a country. How long before the average American can get that?

O'BRIEN: Well, we're working on testing and I think what's happened with tests in America is really a miracle. I mean, we haven't- there's- there's no country in the world that comes close to what America is doing on testing. But we're working on getting more testing out there. And our great American companies are coming up with faster tests, more mobile tests. And we need to get testing out there. But it's not just testing-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: We were supposed to be at five million tests a day at this point, we're not nearly that. In fact, we're now at five million infections as a country.

O'BRIEN: Well, we've had a lot of infections as a country. And again, this is something we need to keep in mind. I mean, this came out of China and we've been fighting it ever since. The whole world's been fighting it. And there have been hundreds of thousands or maybe over a million people worldwide have been killed as a result of this virus. And we've got to remember where it came from. But we're going to fight like heck. We're working hard on vaccines. We're working hard on testing machines that are portable and fast. So the people around the country can be tested quickly. We're working on therapeutics. I mean I'm so impressed with our scientists and our doctors and our first responders and the folks who are attacking this disease and- and God bless them all.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, we know now that Congress and the White House were unable to come to this agreement on more funding for things, including a boost to testing. We also, because there's no agreement, don't have that boost to election security funding that Democrats were asking for. Ambassador, this country has never voted in a pandemic. Don't you need a boost to election security for states across this country? Don't you need more money before November?

O'BRIEN: Well, we're working on that with Congress. And what's really a shame and you had a piece in your in your lead up to- to my conversation with you about the eviction that was taking place. I mean, we have people that are going to be facing eviction and the president took executive action because Congress wouldn't- wouldn't come forward to help people who are being evicted. So the president took executive action--

MARGARET BRENNAN: On election security that that was not actually included in these executive actions. Are you saying you do expect a bill to pass before November?

O'BRIEN: Well, I- I hope so. And I want to make it clear there's been no administration that's done more for election security than this administration. Remember, the things that happened in 2016 and prior to that were under prior administrations. We've been putting in hundreds of millions of dollars into election security at the NSC. We've been running a policy coordination process for months and months and months on election security. We're working with DHS, we're working with secretaries of state across the country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah. 

O'BRIEN: There's no higher concern that we have than maintaining the free and fair elections that are the cornerstone of our democracy. And look, we know that there are people overseas, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Russians, others who would like to interfere with our democracy. And we're going to- we're going to fight against that. And we're going to take every step necessary to harden our election infrastructure, harden our cyber infrastructure and protect our elections one hundred percent.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about that specifically because the intelligence community issued this very sharp warning on Friday detailing efforts to interfere. Looking at the statement from July 24th though, the language there says adversaries are trying to access candidates' private communications and election infrastructure. And that's at both the state and the federal networks. That sounds an awful lot like what Russia did back in 2016, but now it's happening on your watch. So what are you doing to stop it?

O'BRIEN: Well, what we're doing is we've got our cyber teams in place. DHS is working very hard to track down those malign actors, but--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is it Russia again?

O'BRIEN: --again, it's not just Russia. Well, look, we know it's China. We know it's Russia. We know it's Iran.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Tampering with election infrastructure?

O'BRIEN: Well, absolutely, trying to access secretary of state websites and that sort of thing and- and collect data on Americans and- and engage in influence operations, whether it's on Tik Tok or Twitter or in other spaces. So, no, it's- it's a real concern. And- but it's- it's not just Russia, MARGARET. It's- the Chinese don't want the president re-elected. He's been tougher on China than any president in history. And- and we're standing up for the first time to the Chinese Communist Party and protecting Americans, protecting our IP, protecting our economy, protecting our- our vaccine data. And so there are a lot of people around the world that aren't happy with America because they don't share our values. And that shouldn't be a surprise to anybody. And we're going to take every action necessary to- to keep folks out, whether it's China or Russia or Iran--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

O'BRIEN: --or Cuba or Venezuela or others.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I just want to clarify something here, because in the statement that we saw Friday, the counterintelligence chief released the statement saying China prefers President Trump to lose, but it specifically referred to public statements, policy disagreements. Are you here today saying that China is tampering with the US election infrastructure?

O'BRIEN: Well, well they- they'd like the- the president to lose. And- and China, like Russia, like Iran, have engaged in cyber-attacks and phishing and that sort of thing with respect to our election infrastructure, with respect to websites and that sort of thing. We're- we're aware of it and we're- we're taking steps to counter it. Whether it's China or Russia or Iran, we're not going to put up with it. And there will be severe consequences with any country that attempts to interfere with our free and fair elections, whether- whether their- their leaders prefer- prefer Joe Biden or prefer Donald Trump, it doesn't matter. We're Americans. We don't- we're not going to foreign countries deciding who our next president is going to be. That's outrageous.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This statement Friday, specifically when it came to Russia, detailed an active campaign to denigrate Joe Biden. That was the language used, "denigrate former Vice President Biden." And it specifically also mentioned Kremlin linked actors seeking to boost President Trump's candidacy on social media and Russian television. When President Trump spoke to Vladimir Putin July 23, did he tell them to knock this off?

O'BRIEN: Well the- the president has told the Russians, and we've told the Russians, our counterparts, many, many times not to get involved in our election. That it's--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But did President Trump tell that to President Putin?

O'BRIEN: --a red line. You know, what I don't get involved in, you know, unlike perhaps some of my predecessors or others who leaked documents, I don't- I don't get into the- the conversations that the president has with foreign heads of state, whether it's Russia or France or the UK for that matter. Those are private conversations. But I can tell you, we've made it very clear to the Russians, very clear. No- no administration has been tougher on the Russians. We've sanctioned hundreds of Russian entities. We've sanctioned the troll farms. We've sanctioned Rosneft-- 

MARGARET  BRENNAN: But they're doing it again is what you're saying. So the message clearly wasn't received.

O'BRIEN: Well look--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did President Trump say to Vladimir Putin knock it off this time?

O'BRIEN: MARGARET, there's almost nothing we can sanction left of the Russians. We- we put so many sanctions on the Russians that, by the way, that the prior administration didn't do. We've sanctioned the heck out of the Russians, individuals, companies, the government, whether it's related to Nord- Nord Stream or Rosneft. We've- we've kicked out literally scores of Russian spies. We've closed down all their consulates on the west coast. We closed down diplomatic facilities. There's not a lot left we can do with the Russians. But nevertheless, we continue to message the Russians. And President Trump continues the message- message the Russians: don't get involved in our elections. And by the way, that message is to the Chinese and that message is to Tehran as well. Don't do it because there will be severe consequences. And we've shown that. Keep in mind, all of these sanctions, all of this toughness on Russia happened under President Trump, not under prior presidents, not under Obama-Biden administration. It happened under the Trump administration. No one's been--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, but the intelligence community is saying that the interference is also happening on President Trump's watch, which is why I'm specifically asking you, you know, what are you doing to stop it?

O'BRIEN: Well, look, we've made it- we've made it very clear to our adversaries, whether it's China or Russia or Iran, stay out of our election. And we're taking steps across the board to harden our election infrastructure. We're pumping money into the states. DHS has a massive program running. In my shop at the NSC, under President Trump's direction, we've got a massive program running--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah. 

O'BRIEN: --to keep our elections free and fair. And look, I don't want foreign governments to support Joe Biden to influence our elections. I don't want foreign governments to support President Trump to influence our elections. Amer- the American people should decide our elections. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: That's- that's clear.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ambassador O'Brien, thank you. I'm glad that you're back and that you were feeling well.

O'BRIEN: Great to be with you. Thanks, MARGARET.

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