Chinese leaders, Pottinger believed, were engaging in a massive coverup and a “psychological warfare” operation to obscure the origins of the virus and deflect blame, according to people with knowledge of his thinking. U.S. intelligence officials were picking up signs that Chinese operatives were deliberately sowing disinformation, including state media manipulating stories to change key facts, the people said.
Pottinger urged Trump and other senior officials to brand the virus with a label so that there would be no mistaking its origins: the Wuhan virus.
The episode illustrates the quiet but potent influence of the White House’s foremost China expert, whose personal experience as a journalist in that country two decades ago left him deeply distrustful of the regime in Beijing and is now shaping the administration’s hard line posture.
Pottinger’s push to use the term “Wuhan virus” has reverberated. Trump, eager to deflect blame over his own handling of the virus, escalated the rhetoric by using “Chinese virus.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo angered allies in March when he pressured Group of Seven nations to sign a collective statement employing “Wuhan virus,” a demand they refused. Liberals called the language racist.
To Pottinger, the critics missed the point: China’s state media had named the virus for Wuhan for weeks before suddenly pressuring the World Health Organization to formally name it covid-19. Beijing needed to own it.
Pottinger believes Beijing’s handling of the virus has been “catastrophic” and “the whole world is the collateral damage of China’s internal governance problems,” said a person familiar with his thinking, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his views.
After first joining the Trump administration in 2017 as senior director of the National Security Council’s Asia division, Pottinger, 46, is now a pivotal player in the Trump administration’s attempts to reorient U.S. policy on China toward a more confrontational approach, according to multiple people familiar with his role.
In 2017, he helped craft the administration’s national security strategy document that formally named China as a strategic competitor, labeling Beijing a “revisionist power.”
In private, Pottinger has described Xi as steering China’s authoritarian system toward a more dangerous “totalitarianism,” seeking to implement Orwellian-style controls over most aspects of society.
In an interview last fall, H.R. McMaster, who served as Trump’s second national security adviser, called Pottinger “central to the biggest shift in U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War, which is the competitive approach to China.”
Pottinger declined to comment on his role. The White House declined to comment.
Since the earliest days of the pandemic’s arrival in the United States, Pottinger has been conferring with his older brother Paul, a virologist at the University of Washington who treated patients stricken in the country’s first viral outbreak, according to people familiar with their conversations. He has passed on those front-line observations to the White House coronavirus task force led by Vice President Pence.
It was Pottinger who first proposed to Trump a plan to shut down some flights from China in late January, the people said. In March, he led a review that culminated in the State Department slashing the number of visas for Chinese journalists under the rationale that they worked for state-backed propaganda outlets at a time when Beijing was cracking down on foreign reporters. China went on to expel journalists from U.S. publications, including The Washington Post.
Pottinger also supported Trump’s decision this month to freeze U.S. funding to the WHO over charges that it failed to hold China to account and muzzled Taiwan’s earlier warnings in December about the virus that started in China. He is overseeing an internal administration review to present options to the president for how to proceed.
His influence has limits. Pottinger is among a disparate group of advisers promoting often contradictory approaches toward China, which, along with Trump’s own competing impulses, have created a whiplash effect on U.S. policy.
The consequences are playing out in real time as the two world powers have clashed, hampering the international response to the global health and economic emergency. Late last month, Trump and Xi held a phone call to de-escalate tensions, pledging to cooperate on global supply chains.
They eased off the most inflammatory rhetoric, but Trump’s move to punish the WHO has alarmed global health officials who are concerned it could hamper international coordination.
Behind the scenes, Pottinger has pushed intelligence agencies to explore the theory, popular among conservatives, that the pathogen was accidentally released by a virology lab in Wuhan, rather than a wild animal market. So far, that theory has not been proved, but Pottinger believes there is more circumstantial evidence in favor of the lab explanation, said people with knowledge of his views.
He and like-minded State Department aides have warned outside China experts, who had criticized the administration’s use of “Wuhan virus,” that they should remain skeptical of Beijing’s motives. Their message amounted to a warning that more damaging information would come out about Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, according to four people on the calls.
In a Foreign Affairs essay last month, Kurt M. Campbell, who served as a high-level Asia policy official in the Obama administration, wrote that the Trump administration should seek avenues of cooperation with China during the pandemic rather than “getting consumed by a war of narratives about who responded better.”
“Most countries coping with the challenge would rather see a public message that stresses the seriousness of a shared global challenge and possible paths forward,” Campbell and co-author Rush Doshi wrote. “And there is much Washington and Beijing could do together for the world’s benefit.”
Covering the regime
Pottinger, who has a wife and two children, was not well known among Washington’s foreign policy elite when he joined the Trump administration, but government service runs in the family. His father, Stanley, served in the civil rights division in the Justice Department in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
The journalist Bob Woodward has said Stanley Pottinger discovered that FBI official Mark Felt was the Deep Throat source of Watergate fame during an unrelated federal prosecution in 1976. Stanley informed his teenage son of the secret after Matthew asked him to arrange a phone call with Woodward to explore his interest in journalism, associates said.
But Stanley never revealed Felt’s identity to his son.
Pottinger learned his own lessons about the sanctity of sources and the dangers of a paranoid government as a journalist in China, working for Reuters, then the Wall Street Journal in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In a personal essay for the Journal in 2005, he described being videotaped by Chinese police, flushing notes down a toilet to hide them from authorities and being roughed up “by a government goon” at a Starbucks in Beijing.
In the early 2000s, Pottinger covered the SARS outbreak, and in 2004, after the virus had been largely contained, he wrote a story for the Journal about a small resurgence tied to a safety accident at a lab — an event that associates said colors his views of the current crisis.
Paul Eckert, a former Reuters journalist who worked with Pottinger in China, said Pottinger was among the many correspondents who “tend to sour on China. On a deeper level, you have affection for the culture and people. But then the regime gets to you over time.”
Pottinger’s fears of Beijing’s efforts to control information have influenced his work at the White House. Last year, he was among a cohort of NSC aides who helped shepherd Trump’s decision to place Huawei, a giant Chinese telecom equipment-making firm that provides 5G networks, on the Commerce Department’s entity list, making it very difficult for U.S. companies to do business with it.
At a forum in India in January, Pottinger explained the action by citing the company’s unfair Chinese government subsidies. But the real threat, he said, was that allowing Huawei into the country would be akin to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher agreeing to let the KGB, the Soviet Union’s spy agency, build telecommunications networks during the Cold War.
“Do you want it to be provided by suppliers that are beholden to regime-centric governments that are accountable to no one? Or do you want them to spring from citizen-centric societies that actually obey the rule of law?” he said. “That’s really the proposition before us.”
Pottinger left journalism in 2005 to join the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. In his essay for the Journal, he said he was inspired to make the career change after viewing an “obscene” video of an American being beheaded by a terrorist in Iraq.
At 31, Pottinger was older than a typical officer candidate — and out of shape. He trained, friends said, by running along the Great Wall outside Beijing. At officer candidates school in Quantico, VA, the drill instructor learned of Pottinger’s background in China and challenged him to sing the first verse of the Marines’ Hymn in Mandarin, which he did loudly, if not gracefully.
It was in Afghanistan that Pottinger caught the attention of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was overseeing intelligence, and the two men collaborated on an influential report in 2010 that was highly critical of the military’s intelligence-gathering methods.
Flynn became a prominent Trump surrogate in 2016 and, after the election, was named his first national security adviser. He recruited Pottinger, then working at a New York hedge fund, to join the transition team at Trump Tower.
Navigating power centers
On China, Trump has vacillated between the moderate views of his economic advisers, including senior adviser Jared Kushner, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who favor cooperation on trade, and the hard-liners such as Stephen K. Bannon, who left in summer 2017, and trade adviser Peter Navarro, who have pushed toward a decoupling of the world’s two largest economies.
The moderates are sometimes referred to as “KKM,” a powerful bloc that generally resists the more aggressive instincts of Pottinger and the superhawk Navarro.
Pottinger falls on the scale closer to the hard-liners, but he is less ideological and has maintained a military-style respect for the chain of command, content to stay out of the spotlight and careful not to upstage the bigger personalities in the West Wing, associates said.
Those traits have helped him outlast three national security advisers and rise, last summer, to the deputy position under the fourth, Robert C. O’Brien.
“Matt has an extraordinary sense of caution that, ‘Let’s not push something unless the president clearly has approved it.’ This is different from other members of White House staff,” said Michael Pillsbury, a Hudson Institute analyst on China who was on the transition team. “Matt has also fashioned alliances and worked closely with different ideological camps.”
Unlike some Trump aides, Pottinger has a good working relationship with key Democrats, but some have criticized the administration’s lurch toward a combative posture with Beijing without hewing to a broader strategic plan.
“The problem is the distance between the strategy as [Pottinger] would conceive of it and what is actually coming out as U.S. policy,” said Ely Ratner, who is executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security and worked as an high-ranking adviser to Joe Biden when Biden was vice president. “Acting in a confrontational, unilateral way is not going to be effective unless you’re coordinating with your allies, and making the necessary investments in the United States to maintain American competitiveness and put forward an alternative to China. And they’re not doing those things.”
As Asia director, Pottinger kept in his office a large whiteboard mapped out with a highly detailed accounting of China’s growing global influence. The diagram was labeled with military-style buzzwords such as “Lines of Effort” and “Strategic Goals,” according to people who saw it.
A former NSC colleague called it a scorecard of all the ways “the Chinese Communist Party was attacking the West — and how we could fight back.”
Yet Trump has complicated the efforts with his inconsistent messages on Beijing and his regular praise of Xi. Pottinger met with the families of Chinese dissidents at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, but Trump has said little about the mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and China’s jailing of more than a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
While Trump has cited the move to ban flights for Chinese nationals on Jan. 31 as prescient, experts said the ban was inadequate because the disease was already spreading in the United States and it did not apply to American citizens. Trump continued playing down the dangers for six more weeks, squandering precious time to prepare, even as Pottinger moved to secure face masks for the NSC staff and relocated from the West Wing to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, distancing himself from O’Brien, in a bid to ensure continuity of service in case either became infected.
Associates said he recognizes the limits of his influence on Trump.
“Matt looks at it not that he is leading the president, but he’ll be ready when [Trump] gets to a place” to make a decision, said Tim Morrison, a former NSC official who worked with Pottinger. “He’s not trying to outmaneuver various wings of the White House. That’s not how a Marine operates. He follows orders. He makes sure that if a commander says take a hill, he’s ready to take a hill.”
In mid-March, under mounting public criticism, Trump made a sharp turn from praising Xi to blaming China for its lack of transparency, citing a Chinese official who promoted a conspiracy theory that the virus had been released by the U.S. military. He backed off such confrontational rhetoric after speaking to Xi later in the month. But analysts said that the crisis has accelerated and sharpened a geopolitical contest that will play out over years.
During the India forum in January, Pottinger was asked whether the administration aimed to “decouple” economically from Beijing in a Cold War-style standoff.
“Decoupling,” he replied, “is when you have a Great Firewall where not a single Western Internet company has been able to prosper or survive in China, by design. When Christian churches are torn down and ethnic minorities are put into reeducation camps, that’s ‘decoupling.’ So the ‘decoupling’ is something that’s been underway for quite a long time — and it is not driven by the United States.”
Alice Crites and John Hudson contributed to this report.