The NSC’s behind-the-scenes role has been overlooked by critics narrowly focused on whether the folding into the NSC of a previously separate “pandemic office” resulted in what’s seen as the administration’s chaotic response. But the NSC was actually calling for more robust action and working to get more health officials involved.
Throughout January and much of February, senior Trump administration officials heatedly debated the scope and scale of the coronavirus pandemic, which had emerged from China and was spreading around the world. New national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and his deputy, Matthew Pottinger, were among those pushing early for strong action. Pottinger, who lived in China as a Wall Street Journal reporter during the SARS crisis, had witnessed how the Chinese government deals with internal crises and knew they were underplaying the problem.
Before Vice President Pence took over the White House Coronavirus Task Force in late February, Pottinger led the interagency meetings to respond to covid-19. Fluent in Mandarin and intimately familiar with the Chinese government’s pattern of lying and obfuscation, he and O’Brien repeatedly pressed other top officials to take the threat more seriously.
“The guy who was co-chairing most of the task force meetings before the vice president took over, reported on and lived through the SARS breakout in China,” a senior administration official told me. “Pottinger maintains significant contacts in the region that have proved very useful in providing context and information for us as we have been dealing with the crisis.”
Some other top Trump administration officials at the time were not convinced. The NSC pushed hard to cut off travel from China, which was announced by the State Department on Jan. 31. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff at the time, said in late February the media was exaggerating the threat in an effort to bring down President Trump. (Mulvaney was pushed out in early March.)
Two officials told me that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also resisted calls from the NSC and the State Department for early moves that Trump now touts — including the travel bans from China and, later, Europe. Mnuchin argued the moves would negatively impact trade, markets and industries like airlines. (The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.)
“The NSC has been absolutely out front on this,” the senior administration official said. “The NSC was first to call for the cruise ship ban. The NSC experts were the first ones, with the health-care professionals, to call for the air travel cutoffs from China and Europe. This came from the NSC staff and leadership.”
The NSC staff has assumed a lower profile under O’Brien, its fourth leader during the Trump administration. He does not attend the coronavirus briefings in the White House briefing room. He hasn’t been on television talking about the crisis. This is reflective of O’Brien’s deliberate approach, a correction from the confrontational and public style of his predecessor and one-time mentor John Bolton.
Behind the scenes, O’Brien is trying to return the NSC staff to the “Scowcroft model” (so named for former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft), which envisions the council as a convening body that runs a process, rather than a competing power center pushing an ideological agenda. He completed the reduction of the NSC staff from around 170 to about 115. Some of these moves have been criticized as politically motivated, such as the abrupt reassignment of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified against Trump before the House impeachment inquiry, and Vindman’s brother.
It’s also been widely claimed that the NSC cut back on its pandemic expertise under Trump. Yet those assertions don’t hold up to scrutiny. O’Brien hasn’t cut any staff who were focused on defense or health security. His predecessor, Bolton, had consolidated the biodefense and counterproliferation staff into a single directorate, as its leader, Tim Morrison, explained in a column for The Post. O’Brien completed the staff reductions Bolton started, but didn’t fire anyone from that group.
In fact, when the coronavirus crisis was still building, O’Brien called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and asked him to immediately detail a top State Department health official to the NSC to help with the coronavirus. That official, Deborah Birx, was later assigned to Pence and named the White House coronavirus response coordinator.
This month, Pottinger has led a separate interagency team focused on fighting coronavirus propaganda and disinformation coming from the Chinese government. Through their official Twitter accounts, background briefings with journalists and working with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, the team has been pushing back against Beijing’s efforts to rewrite the history of the coronavirus pandemic and propagate the conspiracy theory that the virus originated in the United States.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to tamp down the rhetoric during their phone call last Friday, officials said. After the call, Trump tweeted, “We are working closely together. Much respect!” If the detente holds, the pushback campaign may have achieved its objective.
The U.S. government, like most governments, made many mistakes before realizing the severity and urgency of the coronavirus pandemic. One lesson we must draw is that when health and national security experts sound the alarm, politicians must listen to them — the first time — and act.