The White House official Trump says doesn’t exist
Meet Matthew Pottinger, the former journalist who became the president’s top Asia hand.
This story is being published by the South China Morning Post as part of a content partnership with POLITICO. It was written by Michael Crowley and originally appeared on politico.com on May 30, 2018.
Matthew Pottinger must have been surprised to learn that he doesn’t exist. As the top official for Asia on President Donald Trump’s national security council, Pottinger had briefed dozens of reporters about North Korea two days before Trump angrily tweeted that a New York Times article citing his remarks had relied on an official who “doesn’t exist.” The president was furious that the Times had paraphrased Pottinger, who spoke on background and thus could not be identified in its story, as saying it would be “impossible” for Trump to go forward with his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because there wasn’t enough time to prepare.
“Use real people, not phony sources,” Trump fumed.
A debate ensued online about whether the Times accurately characterized Pottinger, who never used the word “impossible,” although he did come close, saying that the summit date is “in 10 minutes, and it’s going to be — you know…” without finishing the thought.
But there is no debate about whether Pottinger is real. More than that, he is among Trump’s longest-serving aides. As the national security council’s director for Asia, the sandy-haired and boyish-looking 45-year-old is the president’s top adviser on North Korea and China. He organized Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia last fall, during which he was rarely far from the president’s side. He has played a central role in coordinating Trump’s North Korea policy since early last year — one reason he was among a handful of U.S. officials to fly into Pyongyang earlier this month with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And he has been in the thick of White House preparations for a possible summit with Kim.
Pottinger, says former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, is “one of the most significant people in the entire U.S. government.”
That comforts friends and admirers who say Pottinger is among the most grounded and thoughtful — “sane,” as more than one shorthanded it — people in Trump’s orbit. “I have found him variously to be smart, insightful, inquisitive and not dogmatic,” said the Harvard professor and national security strategist Graham Allison, who has discussed China policy with Pottinger. “He is loyal to the team — but listening.”
While hawks like Bannon love his tough views towards China, even Democrats call his views basically mainstream. Still, some foreign policy experts marvel at what they call the disparity between his job title and his resume, and wonder what a nice guy like him is doing in a place like this. Because even Matt Pottinger probably never expected to wind up here.
Some people organize their lives around landing a senior job on the NSC. Pottinger wound up in his more or less by accident. The son of a former Justice Department official turned Wall Street banker, he studied China in college and learned to speak fluent Mandarin before taking a job with Reuters as a China correspondent. Within a few years, not yet 30, he’d jumped to the Wall Street Journal. As a reporter in a country without free media, Pottinger was harassed, arrested and forced to flush notes down the toilet to prevent their seizure. He was once even punched in the face at a Beijing Starbucks by a government thug who warned him to leave the country.
China’s approach backfired spectacularly: His experiences as a foreign correspondent under siege shaped Pottinger’s views toward China’s authoritarian government, and, people who know him say, remain in his mind as he advocates for tougher U.S. policies to check its rise.
In 2004, Pottinger’s life took an unexpected turn. He watched an al Qaeda beheading video online, a catalyst for his enlistment, at age 32, in the U.S. Marines. Out of shape, he threw up after barely passing his preliminary physical, but before long was running six-minute miles. “Friends ask if I worry about going from a life of independent thought and action to a life of hierarchy and teamwork,” he wrote soon after enlisting, in an essay for the Wall Street Journal titled “Mightier Than the Pen.” “At the moment, I find that appealing because it means being part of something bigger than I am.”
Over several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pottinger became an intelligence officer, earning a Bronze Star and rising to the rank of major. In Afghanistan he caught the eye of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, with whom Pottinger later collaborated on a critical analysis of U.S. intelligence operations that made Flynn’s name in national security circles (even though Pottinger, not Flynn, is often said to have done most of the work). Pottinger, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has never been a Trump-style #MAGA conservative. But he did remain a Flynn loyalist even as others grew uncomfortable with the former lieutenant general’s increasingly angry politics.
Pottinger was out of the military and at a Manhattan hedge fund when Flynn called after the election and offered him an NSC job. Some friends and associates warned that he might be dropping his reputation into a meat grinder. They knew Pottinger as a fairly typical conservative internationalist with none of Trump’s populist or resentments. (His one political donation in 2016 was $1,000 to Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, a former U.S. Marine.) But Pottinger accepted out of what some people who know him describe as a military-like sense of duty. “To me it’s remarkable that anyone of that decency and quality made it in with Flynn,” says a former senior Obama White House foreign policy hand.
Some also found it remarkable that a man who had never worked a day in civilian government or played a role in U.S. Asia policy would now have such a consequential post. By some accounts Pottinger was originally in line to be the NSC’s China director, but landed the more senior job of Asia director after Flynn was unable to find a more seasoned candidate.
But Pottinger has survived, outlasting dozens of other early hires in Trump’s ever-churning White House. After Flynn’s firing in February 2017, his successor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, took a shine to Pottinger, in part because of their shared military service (which has also endeared Pottinger to White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general). And people who have spoken to Pottinger say he expects to stay on under Trump’s latest national security adviser, John Bolton. Like McMaster and Flynn before him, Bolton has relatively little experience in Asia policy — the same goes for Pompeo — and is expected to draw heavily on Pottinger’s advice.
Good-natured and colorfully profane, Pottinger has also endeared himself to Trump and other White House officials with his hard-nosed attitude toward America’s rivals, particularly China and North Korea. He calls it a mistake for the U.S. to have welcomed China into the global economy with the hope of creating a friendly economic and strategic partner. That has made him an advocate for Trump policies that have treated trade with China as a national security issue.
“Matt was a key architect of the papers that ended up capturing China’s economic aggression strategy, which went through the [NSC] process and was endorsed by the president,” said Nadia Schadlow, a former McMaster deputy who left the White House last month. That was the underpinning for Trump’s March 22 announcement of tariffs on up to $60 billion in Chinese imports, an early salvo in several weeks of high-stakes negotiations to avoid a trade war with Beijing.
Pottinger also played a key role in crafting a Trump national security strategy document, released last year, that sharpened official Obama-era rhetoric by branding China as a “revisionist power” determined to “reorder the [Asia] region in its favor.” Although the strategy drew little attention in Washington beyond foreign policy insiders, it enraged officials in Beijing — who have tried to end-run Pottinger by approaching other Trump officials, including the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
In private settings, Pottinger has also warned that Washington has underestimated the global power China will project through its massive “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project, an effort to connect Asian countries under Beijing’s aegis. But he is not entirely dogmatic in his views: After Allison wrote a book that some China hawks like Bannon considered “accomodationist,” Pottinger invited the Harvard thinker to brief NSA Asia experts. “Pottinger is a hawk, but he’s looked at as an honest broker,” Bannon said.
Still, one 2017 article in the nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times named Pottinger as a key member of a “broadly hawkish” Trump team which “requires continued vigilance.” One source familiar with Trump administration China policy said Pottinger’s dim view of the government in Beijing is one reason why Chinese diplomats have worked to cultivate Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as an alternate entry point into the White House.
Apart from China, no issue has consumed as much of Pottinger’s time as North Korea. Pottinger has quarterbacked Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” toward the country, which focused on tightening economic sanctions. But in the months before Trump unexpectedly accepted Kim’s invitation to meet, it also involved discussions about a possible military attack to slow Kim’s nuclear and missile programs, or at least send a signal of U.S. resolve.
The very idea of pre-emptively striking North Korea horrifies many Washington foreign policy veterans, who warn it could lead to a catastrophic escalation and death in spectacular numbers. Even talk at the White House of a limited first strike — sometimes called a “bloody nose” — drew protests last winter from Trump’s planned pick for ambassador to North Korea, Victor Cha, whose planned nomination was scrubbed as a result.
While it is unclear exactly what Pottinger has argued inside the White House, he has left numerous outside Asia experts with the impression that he is willing to entertain the idea of a military strike. In part this is because he has argued that Kim doesn’t want nuclear weapons solely to deter a U.S. attack on his regime, but to keep the U.S. at bay as he pursues aggressive strategies, possibly even the conquest of South Korea.
North Korea has had “a very robust conventional deterrent that’s worked for decades, so what is it that they are attempting to achieve?” Pottinger asked at a public forum in May 2017. “If you look at some of the darker secondary aspects of why they are trying to achieve this kind of arsenal, you’ll find some very disturbing answers.… They want to use these weapons as an instrument of blackmail to achieve other goals — even perhaps in a coercive reunification of the peninsula one day.”
When it came to discussions of military options, Pottinger “definitely had a higher risk tolerance” than many other experts and government colleagues, said one former U.S. official familiar with Pottinger’s views.
It is possible, as others suggest, that Pottinger (along with his former boss, McMaster) might have played up the military option as a means of intimidating Kim, and perhaps also Chinese officials whom Trump has pressured to crack down on trade with Pyongyang. But some find even that notion unsettling. “It plays fast and loose with U.S. credibility, and ignores the fact that even hollow rhetoric can take on a life of its own,” says Van Jackson, a former Pentagon Asia policy specialist under Obama.
What does seem likely is that Pottinger, despite a sketchy February report in a South Korean newspaper that has not been substantiated, never told a closed-door audience that a military strike against North Korea would benefit Trump in the midterm elections. “Pottinger is a Marine who served in two wars and doesn’t take military action lightly,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted about what she called the “reckless accusation.”
Talk of military action has subsided for now. But it may come roaring back if Trump and Kim are unable to strike a deal and hostilities between them re-escalate. Even many Pottinger admirers say that, like so many Trump aides, he is in an impossible position — running a foreign policy process for a president with little interest in the kind of expertise or formal deliberation that defines the National Security Council. Although Pottinger has helped to toughen America’s official posture toward China, there’s little he can do about Trump’s chaotic and zigzag approach to trade negotiations with the country, or his seemingly improvised and emotion-driven dealings with Kim.
“Basically, [NSC aides are] reacting to tweets all the time,” said a Bush-era White House official who speaks to Trump foreign policy officials. Another former official from a past Republican administration who worked on Asia policy added: “It evokes a lot of sympathy from me, but also evokes a sense of what the hell are you still there for?”
In that sense it was perhaps symbolic that Trump — presumably unaware that Pottinger had briefed reporters last week — publicly denied the very existence of his senior Asia adviser. It was a peculiar indignity that may only have been possible in the Trump era. But it may be that Pottinger always knew what he was getting into, and decided it was worth the price. In a 2011 address at Milton Academy, the Massachusetts prep school from which he graduated 20 years earlier, Pottinger urged students to challenge their comfort zones.
“Do things that are difficult, things that are uncomfortable, and things that are, sometimes, humiliating,” he said, “and you will be rewarded in enormous ways — ways that make you more effective in whatever form of public service I hope many of you end up undertaking.”