As President Trump’s devotees stormed the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon, several senior administration officials took the opportunity to resign. One of them was deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger.
Most Americans will likely see him as yet another fed-up Trump official, without realizing the greater significance of his four years of White House service. Even though Pottinger’s name was largely unknown to the public, his influence on U.S. foreign policy will be felt for years to come. The incoming Biden administration is set to preserve many of the changes in the government’s approach to China that Pottinger, along with other like-minded officials, worked to implement.
“It’s impossible to overstate the impact Matt has had on American national security,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who served with Pottinger when they were both Marine intelligence officers in Iraq. “He leaves behind a four-year legacy as impactful as any American strategist before him.”
On Dec. 3, 2016, Pottinger received a call from his former commander in Afghanistan, retired general Michael Flynn, who was set to become President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser. Pottinger rode a Citi Bike uptown from his office in Manhattan to Trump Tower and joined the transition team. This was one day after Trump had accepted a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, upending 40 years of precedent and setting off the new era in U.S.-China relations with a bang.
Starting on the administration’s first day, Pottinger served as Flynn’s senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff and remained after Flynn was fired. Under Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, Pottinger worked with other officials to craft new guidelines on U.S. strategy toward China, including an “Indo-Pacific strategy review,” as well as the Asia portion of the National Security Strategy, which labeled China a “strategic competitor.” Pottinger’s team contributed heavily to investigations and reports detailing China’s economic aggression, which formed the basis for Trump’s trade war against Beijing.
Pottinger continued under national security adviser John Bolton and was elevated to deputy national security adviser under Bolton’s replacement, Robert C. O’Brien, crafting key speeches and traveling the world to explain the Trump administration’s often misunderstood China strategy. Pottinger deliberately kept a low profile, but he occasionally stepped out in public to explain the thinking behind the administration’s approach.
In the fall of 2018, speaking at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Pottinger argued that Confucius himself would have wanted U.S. and Chinese leaders to speak honestly about the competition the two countries are in. “To us, this was really an example of what Confucius called the ‘rectification of names,’ ” he said, quoting from “The Analects” in both Mandarin and English. “For us, ‘competition’ is not a four-letter word.”
Pottinger is a hard-liner on China but not as hawkish as officials such as former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. But Pottinger often opposed accommodationists such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Pottinger believed in restoring the balance of power between China and the United States in Asia after many years of drift due to lax policy in Washington.
Because of his experience during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis as a Wall Street Journal reporter in China, Pottinger was among the first U.S. officials to warn about the coronavirus pandemic as it began to spread there. In January 2020, he convened and led some of the first interagency meetings on the emerging crisis. He and O’Brien pushed Trump to ban travel from China later that month, one of the few pandemic decisions Trump can rightfully claim credit for now.
Pottinger has also focused on raising awareness of Chinese Communist Party efforts to spread influence and interfere in various U.S. institutions, including academia, the tech sector and Wall Street. Inside the bureaucracy, he expanded the NSC’s Asia staff and pushed all national security agencies to rethink their assumptions and greatly increase their focus on China.
The incoming Biden administration is planning to continue much of the basic China approach Pottinger and others set in place, albeit with some changes. That reflects the bipartisan consensus in Congress and growing calls from voters in both parties for a strategy that more forcefully confronts Beijing’s external aggression and internal repression. Biden is expected to name his own “Asia czar” inside the NSC staff, recognizing the importance of having a senior official such as Pottinger in charge of coordination on the issue.
Chinese state media may be gloating today at the state of U.S. democracy, but the leaders in Beijing are trying to distract us from their increasingly desperate campaign to stamp out dissent at home. American democracy will survive, even thrive, after Trump. But China’s trajectory looks increasingly grim.
Trump’s own views on China have run the gamut, sometimes focusing on his friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and sometimes portraying China as a bitter enemy. But Pottinger helped translate those impulses into lasting institutional change that will long outlive the Trump administration.