Transcript: Robert O'Brien on "Face the Nation," May 24, 2020

O'Brien: Administration looking at cutting off travel from Brazil
O'Brien: Administration looking at cutting of... 08:39

The following is a transcript of an interview with national security adviser Robert O'Brien that aired Sunday, May 24, 2020, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: Elizabeth Palmer in London. Thanks. We go now to the White House and President Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien. Good morning to you, Ambassador.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER ROBERT O'BRIEN: Good morning, MARGARET. Great to be here. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: On Friday, Dr. Deborah Birx, your colleague, said that D.C. is the metro area with the highest positivity rate in the country. There's significant virus swirling here. Have all the G-7 leaders agreed to come to Washington and is it advisable to do that?

O'BRIEN: Well, the G-7 summit, if it happens in person and we think it will, will take place at the end of June. So we're- I think we're getting very close to the peak, if we're not at the peak already in Washington and if the situation permits it and we think it will, we'd love to have the G-7 in- in person. I think the G-7 leaders would love to meet in person and not do a video conference. So the president extended the invitation and so far we've had a great response. The logistics- we'll make sure everybody is tested. We'll make sure that it's a safe environment if the leaders can come here. But we'd love to host them in Washington. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So end of June, no longer June 10th for the G-7?

O'BRIEN: No, I think we'd be looking at the end of June at this point, just because the logistics of bringing in so many world leaders with their- their security details and- and planning for the event. So I think it would be later in June. But again, it's a chance for the leaders of the democracies of the- of the free enterprise countries to get together and decide how to get their economies reopened and how we can work together to make sure that we all come out of this COVID crisis and bring back health and peace and prosperity for our peoples.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We learned this week, because the president shared it, that he's been taking hydroxychloroquine along with zinc. He also mentioned he's been taking azithro- azithromycin. Is there a national security risk for the commander in chief to be taking a medication that the FDA warns the public there is risk of having heart problems? And are there other drugs that the president is taking?

O'BRIEN: Well, I'm not aware of the- of any other drugs the president's taking, but he's in close consultation with his physician, Commander Sean Conley, a Navy physician who's an outstanding doctor, and I'm sure they're doing the right regimen for President Trump. I can tell you with the antimalarial drugs I've spent a lot of time in Africa over the- over the years, and I've taken antimalarial drugs with- with no side effects and no problems during that time. And so I think the president's under great medical care with Walter Reed and with Dr. Conley here at the White House. And I think he's doing the right thing for- that he and his physician believe is good for the president. So I'm not concerned about his health. The guy's got more energy than anyone I've ever seen. He works 16, 18 hours a day. So I don't see any- any change in his strong performance as a result of whatever health regimen he is under undergoing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: If you look around the world right now, Brazil has a spiking rate of infection from COVID-19. The Southern Hemisphere is an area we know Dr. Fauci said he's very worried about. Are you going to cut off travel from the Southern Hemisphere?

O'BRIEN: You know, we're concerned about the people of the Southern Hemisphere and certainly the people of Brazil. They're having a rough go of it. We've had a rough go of it. And one of things I want to say, and just- just as I preface to responding to that question, which is a great question, I want the American people to know how much the president cares about them and- and the 90 to 91,000 people that have been lost, parents, grandparents, friends, first line- first responders, frontline workers in the healthcare industry. We mourn their loss. And as far as travel to Brazil goes, and I'm sorry for the- the long intro to that, I think that we'll have a 212(f) decision today with respect to Brazil and just like we did with the UK and- and Europe and China. And we hope that'll be temporary. But because of the situation in Brazil, we're going to take every step necessary to protect the American people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So that sounds like you are looking to cut off travel from Brazil and the Southern Hemisphere. Do you--

O'BRIEN: Well, as of now, I'd say Brazil. And we'll take a look at- at the other countries on a country by country basis for sure, MARGARET.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I know travel from Europe to this country wasn't restricted until mid-March, China earlier. National Security Council has been reportedly pushing for travel from Europe to be cut off earlier than it was. Do you regret not being more aggressive in that?

O'BRIEN: Well, one of the things we did and I think one- again a story that has not been focused on enough is- is when we raised this issue really for the first time really vehemently with President Trump on January 28 with respect to the China travel ban, within two days, even though many of his advisers urged against it, the president made a hard decision and cut off travel from China within two days of- of learning that this was a serious, serious outbreak. And that saved countless lives. What we- what we didn't know at the time, and I, by the way, after cutting off travel from China, I called my counterparts, the other national security advisors in Europe and urged them to take similar action. What we didn't realize is the Chinese would continue to allow folks to travel from Wuhan. Even though they'd cut off travel within China, they allowed those folks to travel from China to Europe and to seed the disease in Europe and then have it come through a backdoor into the United States. So, look, in hindsight, perfect hindsight, when we realized the Europeans hadn't cut off travel and when we really, you know, we didn't know at the time, but we later learned that the Chinese allowed folks to continue to travel from Wuhan to- to Europe, sure, it would have been better to cut it off early. But what I want to focus on are literally the hundreds of thousands or millions of lives that were saved because President Trump made a decision that was entirely courageous at a time when the IC and others did not believe that this was a serious health risk or even a global pandemic. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: The president has said that he wouldn't shut down the country again if there's a second wave of this virus. The two could overlap: a resurgence and the elections. What planning are you doing? Are you setting up infrastructure for mail-in ballots?

O'BRIEN: Well, we have a very strong infrastructure at the NSC on elections, both for election interference, which is the physical attack on the infrastructure, whether it's- and working with DHS and working with all the agencies, FBI, the IC, the physical attacks on the on the sanctity of the- the election day, the ballots, the voting machines, the secretary of state websites. And we're also looking at and have a group that's focused on election interference. We'll have to see what happens with the virus. But we want to make sure that- that we have a free and fair election. That elections are going to take place on Election Day, there's no question about it. And we want to make sure that Americans can go to the polls safely and we'll do everything we can to make sure that happens. At the same time, we want to avoid voter fraud and and misapprehension about- about the safety of the election among the American people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, mail-in ballots may be a necessity in terms of where we are health-wise in this country. What planning are you doing now to prepare us for the fall? Have you stockpiled protective gear? Are you considering stockpiling drugs like remdesivir?

O'BRIEN: Well, we're- we're working to produce as much remdesivir as possible and- and the company Gilead that's behind it has been doing a great job. It's an American success story. We're going to have a stockpile, excuse me, of over 100,000 ventilators that are available and we're stockpiling PPE. We're making masks. The president's been to several companies that are now domestically producing masks so we're not dependent on the Chinese Communist Party for our PPE. So we're moving out smartly on all those fronts, MARGARET.

MARGARET BRENNAN: If China develops a vaccine before the U.S. does, would it be made available to the American public?

O'BRIEN: Well, listen, I think we're going to develop a vaccine first. Now, there's a chance, and it's been reported, that the Chinese have been engaged in espionage to try and find the research and the technologies that we're working on both for a vaccine and a therapy. So, look, they've got a many, many year history of stealing American intellectual property and- and knocking off American technology. And- and I wouldn't be surprised if they did that with vaccines. But I think we're moving out very quickly on both therapies and a vaccine. We're gonna make it available to the American people, and one of things the president said is if we have a vaccine, we're going to share it with the whole world. Look, this was a virus that was unleashed by China. There was a cover up that someday they're going to do an HBO show like they did with Chernobyl on- on this virus. But we're going to be part of the solution to the virus--

MARGARET BRENNAN: A cover up of what? 

O'BRIEN: A cover up of the virus. I mean, the- the Chinese knew this was happening November, December, January and were giving false information to the WHO-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Local authorities or are you accusing Beijing?

O'BRIEN: Well, look, we- we don't know it because they won't- they kicked out all the reporters and they wouldn't let CDC investigators come in and they're still stonewalling an investigation. So we don't know who in the Chinese government did it, but it doesn't matter if it was the local Chinese government or the Communist Party of China. This is a real problem and it cost many, many thousands of lives in America and around the world because the real information was not allowed to get out. And it was a cover up. And we'll get to the bottom of it eventually. But it's hard to do in a closed- in a communist closed society. It's hard to get to the bottom of what happened.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ambassador O'Brien, thank you for your time this morning. 

O'BRIEN: Thank you, MARGARET. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: FACE THE NATION will be back in one minute with the Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. Stay with us.