In May, all West Wing staff were briefly ordered to wear masks at work. To this day, many continue to do so by choice, for their safety and health, with one senior Trump official telling The Daily Beast that they wear one because “I’m not a moron.” So you’d think the first high-ranking official to put one on might get some credit from his colleagues.
But this is the Trump White House, where logic isn’t always king and petty personal beefs can easily turn national policy on its head. A select group of officials have grown increasingly frustrated with Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger—for putting on a mask shortly after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic.
Months later, these senior officials still trash Pottinger behind closed doors for his decision to wear a mask at a time when their boss, President Donald Trump, and other senior administration officials chose to avoid wearing face coverings, according to three senior officials and one former official. Some of those close to Trump viewed Pottinger’s mask-wearing as an indication that the deputy national security adviser was publicly challenging the president, one of those senior officials said.
“That was something that angered and confused a bunch of people,” said one of the officials familiar with the matter. “The thinking was, ‘We are getting tested all the time, what is the point?’ [Some officials] warned him that this was something that could risk pissing off the president. But Matt did not care.”
Last month, Pottinger’s boss, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, tested positive for the virus.
The president and his allies have gone back and forth on whether he agrees that wearing a mask is truly needed to help contain the virus. On July 17, Trump said during a Fox News interview that he disagreed with Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield that everyone should wear masks to bring the virus to heel. “I don’t believe in that, no,” Trump told Wallace. “I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody would wear a mask, everything disappears.”
Just a few days later, Trump posted a photo of himself to Twitter with a mask and said: “Many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”
Behind closed doors, Trump has teased Pottinger behind his back for wearing a mask in front of him. Trump has joked that he’s not sure if the deputy national security adviser ever takes it off, one senior administration official said.
"This is simply inaccurate. The White House takes the virus seriously and is working around the clock to defeat it," White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah emailed The Daily Beast on Monday. "Additionally, Matt Pottinger is a key member of the President’s national security team, who is held in the highest regard by his colleagues and the interagency."
Such mockery from the president on down has been a kiss of death for other officials. In 2017, for example, then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s professional fate was sealed when the president started going around the West Wing gossiping about how much of a “leaker” he thought Bannon was.
But Pottinger continues to play a prominent role in Trump’s biggest priority: punishing Beijing.
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, some of Trump’s top advisers are pushing ahead with plans to secure major foreign policy wins as a way to bolster the president’s chances of winning in November. As part of those efforts, national security officials have zeroed in on revamping the White House’s approach to dealing with the Chinese government.
In the last several months as the coronavirus spread across the world, Trump’s trade deal with Beijing has begun to unravel. Some experts say the Chinese are tens of billions behind on their purchasing promises and the president’s closest China hawk confidants, including Peter Navarro, have urged Trump to pull out of the deal altogether. Now, officials are trying to course-correct and get ahead of any negative press about that phased deal crumbling by announcing new, tougher actions against Beijing before the election.
Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser and former Asia director at the National Security Council, is leading that campaign. Officials close to Pottinger say he has, perhaps more than any other official operating in the national security apparatus, contributed to the implementation of something approaching a comprehensive China policy that seeks to hold Beijing accountable for its cultural genocide in Xianjing, its wide-scale theft of intellectual property, and its clampdown on protests in Hong Kong—even as Trump himself appears uninterested in going after President Xi Jinping for such abuses.
At times, that’s put Pottinger at odds with the commander in chief and other top Trump administration figures. For example, in February 2017 Trump told Xi that Washington would acknowledge the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China and that the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department announced a slew of deals with China that on the surface seemed like an attempt to draw Beijing in as a strategic business partner—something Pottinger has adamantly fought against.
Most recently, Pottinger rang the alarm about the dangers posed by the coronavirus while Trump and others were brushing off the possibility of a pandemic. Pottinger pushed the administration to denounce Beijing for its delayed communication about the virus’ existence and its origins. And he lobbied his bosses early on to publicly refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus.”
Pottinger is respected by Republicans on Capitol Hill and is viewed inside the top national security echelons of the administration as “a soldier,” as one former official put it. (He’s actually a retired Marine and served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
The result has been multiple profiles in news outlets over the last six months for Pottinger, who worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal before his military career. And that attention—along with the mask-wearing—irked certain individuals in the White House even more. One profile in particular sparked tensions with O’Brien, officials said. That article, in The Washington Post, described Pottinger as an official who wields “quiet but potent influence” and is a leader in “shaping the administration’s hard line posture” against Beijing. The piece even quoted an interview with O’Brien’s predecessor H.R. McMaster, who called Pottinger “central to the biggest shift in U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War, which is the competitive approach to China.” With increased attention on Pottinger, so too came scrutiny of his work on China, particularly by O’Brien, who viewed the dwindling trade deal as a problem in part brought on by his deputy.
Supporters of Pottinger, officials who work with him in the administration and several in the Washington think-tank space, say any backlash is contained to a small cohort of officials. But these supporters underscored the risk such backlash could have on any effort to advance the administration’s China strategy in the weeks leading up to the election.
“If he’s pushed out, who else is going to be able to do that job?” one individual with knowledge of the situation said. “No one.”
One way Pottinger has helped ensure his own survival in a gossipy, backstabbing Trumpworld, an arena renowned for its rapid-fire turnover, is simple: He learned how to please the boss, and how to deal with his notoriously short attention span.
Early on in the administration, Pottinger developed a specific, succinct style of briefing Trump, finding ways to hold the president’s attention and not bore him, according to a former White House official who’s been in the room when Pottinger and Trump converse. He wasn’t known as someone who had flashy, ostentatious moments when talking in private with Trump and generally kept his head down during the tumult, scandal, and relentless palace intrigue of the administration’s early months. Although he was never considered a Trump loyalist, the fact that he was vouched for and initially tapped for a position by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn gave Pottinger some “MAGA street cred” that helped shield him from rampant suspicion, this ex-official noted.
And though Pottinger is not as personally tight with the president as some of Trump’s other China hawks are, he was known to fly on Air Force One with the president, even on domestic flights, in the early years of the Trump era, specifically to brief him on China matters. But Pottinger’s recurring focus on human rights in China has often been left on the cutting-room floor, at least as far as the sitting president is concerned.
Three months after Pottinger, speaking Mandarin, delivered a speech in May that praised the “millions of Hong Kong citizens who peacefully demonstrated for the rule of law last year,” Trump went on a Fox Sports Radio show and shrugged at the crisis. According to the president, the crisis in Hong Kong is “a little bit tough from certain standpoints” because, “you know… it’s a part, when you look, I mean, take a look at a map. It’s attached to China.”