In 1948, the US House of Representatives received a tip from a man named Whittaker Chambers that several federal officials had been working for the communists. One of these officials was more than happy to appear before Congress to clear his name—a leading State Department and United Nations representative named Alger Hiss.
The rakish Hiss was the exemplary American statesman: Polite, pedigreed, well-spoken, and a Harvard man to boot. During the 1945 United Nations conference, the Chinese delegation had proposed the creation of a new international health organization. After the Chinese failed to get a resolution passed, Hiss recommended establishing the organization by declaration, and the World Health Organization was born.
In Congress, Hiss coolly denied the allegations and denounced his deadbeat accuser for the libelous claims. The House came away newly reassured that the State Department was in excellent hands.
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(Spoiler alert: He was then and always had been a communist.)
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The next year, intelligence leaks from the federal service led to the Soviet Union’s first successful nuclear test, ending the security afforded by America’s nuclear monopoly 15 years earlier than experts expected. Shortly thereafter, Kim Il-Sung and Chairman Mao used the cover of Soviet nuclear weapons to invade South Korea. The ensuing war claimed over 3 million lives and resulted in the permanent recognition of the nation of North Korea.
Around this time, a little-known Congressman from California’s 12th district named Richard M. Nixon pressed Chambers for more information. Chambers reluctantly led Tricky Dick to a package of State Department materials he had hidden in a pumpkin patch—including notes in Hiss’s own writing. Alger Hiss became the most high-level American official ever convicted in connection with working for the communists.
To be honest, I barely knew who Matt Pottinger was until I read that he’d appointed Deborah Birx as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator in her bizarrely self-incriminating memoir Silent Invasion, which reads like it was written by the Chinese Communist Party itself. There’s little information about Pottinger’s role in Covid online.
Yet Pottinger is portrayed as a leading protagonist in three different pro-lockdown books on America’s response to Covid-19: The Plague Year by the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, Nightmare Scenario by the Washington Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb, and Chaos Under Heaven by the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin. Pottinger’s singularly outsized role in pushing for alarm, shutdowns, mandates, and science from China in the early months of Covid is extremely well-documented.
Pottinger’s enormous influence during Covid is especially surprising not only because of his absence from online discussion about these events, but because of who he is.
The son of leading Department of Justice official Stanley Pottinger, Matt Pottinger graduated with a degree in Chinese studies in 1998 before going to work as a journalist in China for seven years, where he reported on topics including the original SARS. In 2005, Pottinger unexpectedly left journalism and obtained an age waiver to join the US Marine Corps.
Over several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pottinger became a decorated intelligence officer and met General Michael Flynn, who later appointed him to the National Security Council (NSC). Pottinger was originally in line to be China Director, but Flynn gave him the more senior job of Asia Director.
Despite being new to civilian government, Pottinger outlasted many others in Trump’s White House. In September 2019, Pottinger was named Deputy National Security Advisor, second only to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
Pottinger is best known as a China hawk, but a smart and sophisticated one. He’s been ahead of the curve in calling out China’s increasingly aggressive geopolitical stance, articulating this challenge with near-perfect eloquence.
As Politico writes, “While hawks like Bannon love his tough views toward China, even Democrats call his views basically mainstream. Still, some foreign policy experts…wonder what a nice guy like him is doing in a place like this.” “He’s a very effective bureaucratic player, which is saying something because he’s never had a policy job before,” the New York Times agreed. “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,” the Washington Post admired.
While many Trump administration officials have floundered since Trump left the White House, “things are going well for Pottinger,” Vox gushed. “[T]hat subject matter expertise—plus the patina afforded by resigning on January 6—has helped Pottinger, a former journalist, expertly navigate the post-Trump landscape. He even emerged as the White House hero of the initial Covid-19 chaos in New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s chronicle of The Plague Year… One reason that Matt Pottinger was welcomed back into the establishment is that, unlike some of Trump’s unconventional appointees, he had already been a part of the elite.”
From the center-right to the center-left and the far right to the far left, it’s tough to find anyone on the Beltway short on praise for Matt Pottinger. Everything about Pottinger is silky smooth. Between the lines of glowing coverage are not-so-subtle winks and nudges that he’d make an excellent candidate for higher office.
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1. Ratcheting Up Alarm via “Asymptomatic Spread”
In January 2020, Pottinger unilaterally called meetings and ratcheted up alarm about the new coronavirus in the White House based on information from his own sources in China, despite having no official intelligence to back up his alarmism, breaching protocol on several occasions.
In Washington, Matt Pottinger was first made aware of the new coronavirus after China’s CDC Director called US CDC Director Robert Redfield to report it on January 3, 2020. According to Pottinger, he grew increasingly alarmed due to the rumors he saw on Chinese social media. As Wright reports:
Pottinger therefore authorized the first interagency meeting on the coronavirus based on these social media reports. There was no official intelligence to prompt the meeting.
On January 27, 2020, Trump’s staff attended the first full meeting on the coronavirus in the White House Situation Room. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, Pottinger had unilaterally called the meeting. Others urged calm, but Pottinger immediately began pushing for travel bans. As Abutaleb writes:
As Wright documents, the health officials thought travel restrictions would be futile.
Among those present, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney appears to have been the only one to express skepticism of Pottinger’s information. As Abutaleb writes:
The next morning, January 28, 2020, Pottinger says he spoke to a doctor in China who told him the new coronavirus would be as bad as the 1918 Spanish flu, and that half the cases were asymptomatic. As Rogin writes:
Later that same day, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien brought Pottinger into the Oval Office, where he seized the first opportunity to repeat to the President what the doctor in China had told him that morning.
Wright goes into more detail on this meeting, in which Pottinger interjected to alarm the President:
That same day, Pottinger and the White House staff reconvened in the Situation Room. Pottinger recalls that he’d been especially inspired into action by Xi Jinping’s lockdown of Wuhan and by the hospital that the CCP claims to have built in 10 days, but did not actually build. As Abutaleb reports:
As Deputy National Security Advisor, Pottinger was supposed to “avoid arguing forcefully for any particular outcome,” so he brought Peter Navarro to make his arguments for him. Abutaleb continues:
Once again, Mulvaney was skeptical of Pottinger. Three months prior, Navarro had been caught citing himself as an expert source using the pseudonym “Ron Vara”:
A health expert pointed out that the statistic Pottinger had reported from the doctor in China about asymptomatic spread couldn’t be true.
On February 1, Mulvaney tried to rein Pottinger in. As Rogin reports:
2. Pottinger’s Crusade for Universal Masking
In February 2020, Pottinger, who has no background in science or public health, began a months-long campaign to popularize universal masking and travel quarantines in response to the coronavirus based on information from his own sources in China.
Beginning in February 2020, Pottinger began a crusade for Americans to adopt universal masking in response to the new coronavirus based on recommendations from his own sources in China. As Abutaleb writes:
Pottinger began wearing a mask to work in early March to convince his White House colleagues to take up the practice.
Pottinger, who has no background in science or public health, pushed for mask mandates in the White House and for staff to be quarantined if they traveled outside Washington.
Pottinger urged the adoption of universal masking as had been ordered by “governments in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.”
Pottinger saw no “downside” in universal masking, though there was no data and research to show it was effective.
Pottinger proposed delivering a mask to every mailbox in America. As Wright reports:
Matt Pottinger’s crusade for the adoption of universal masking based on information from his own sources in China is especially peculiar because, as of the time of this writing, though there are hundreds of pictures of Pottinger online, there does not appear to be a single one in which he is wearing a mask anywhere on the Internet.
3. Popularizing Shutdowns
In January 2020, Pottinger popularized shutdowns within the White House using a dubious study on the 1918 flu pandemic comparing outcomes between Philadelphia and St. Louis, a month before this study received any significant media attention.
If you live in the United States, you probably remember the ludicrous study that made the rounds among major media outlets in March 2020 comparing outcomes in Philadelphia and St. Louis during the 1918 Spanish flu. According to the study, St. Louis canceled its annual parade, closed schools, and discouraged gatherings in 1918, while Philadelphia did not, so Philadelphia was punished when thousands of residents died of flu over the coming weeks. Therefore, these media outlets argued, it somehow logically followed that we should shut down the entire United States economy in 2020.
One man who was several weeks ahead of media outlets in citing this claptrap was Matt Pottinger. As Wright reports, Pottinger began popularizing the idea of shutdowns within the White House by circulating this study among his White House colleagues on January 31, 2020.
4. Appointing Deborah Birx as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator
Beginning in January 2020, Pottinger began petitioning for Deborah Birx to be appointed as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. Birx then embarked on a months-long scorched earth campaign for lockdowns that were as long and strict as possible across the United States.
On January 28, 2020, Pottinger began to reach out to Deborah Birx to have her come to the White House to lead the response to the Coronavirus. As Birx recalls in her book:
Abutaleb goes into more detail on Birx’s relationship with Pottinger. Pottinger was married to one of Birx’s subordinates who’d developed a widely-used HIV test at the CDC.
According to Pottinger and Birx, he pleaded with her over several weeks to head the Coronavirus Task Force, and she reluctantly agreed. The hero we didn’t need. As Birx recalls in her book:
As documented in her bizarre tell-all book, which received uniquely excellent reviews from Chinese state media, Birx then embarked on a months-long, largely clandestine, scorched-earth crusade to orchestrate lockdowns that were as long and strict as possible across the United States. These lockdowns ultimately killed tens of thousands of young Americans while failing to meaningfully slow the spread of the coronavirus everywhere they were tried. By her own admission, she lied, hid data, and manipulated the president’s administration to drive consent for lockdowns that were stricter than the administration realized until finally stepping down soon after breaking her own travel guidance to visit her family for Thanksgiving in November 2020.
In October 2020, while visiting Utah, Pottinger admired his handiwork in appointing Birx. Wright reports:
5. Promoting Mass Testing
Sometime in February 2020, Pottinger, who has no background in science or public health, appears to have promoted within the White House the idea of mass testing for the coronavirus. Wright recounts:
Using the standard PCR cycle thresholds of 37 to 40 later provided in the testing guidance published by the WHO, approximately 85% to 90% of these cases were false positives, as later confirmed by The New York Times.
6. Endorsing Remdesivir
In March 2020, Pottinger appears to have endorsed use of the drug remdesivir as a possible Covid therapy based on information from a doctor in China. Wright reports:
The health outcomes of remdesivir remain unknown, but no benefit to the mortality of its recipients has been proven.
7. Pushing Intelligence to Believe Covid Came From a Lab
Pottinger has continually promoted the idea that the coronavirus came from a lab, and specifically prodded the US intelligence community to do the same, regardless of evidence, while urging the global adoption of China’s virus containment measures.
In January 2020, Pottinger began directly prodding the CIA to look for evidence that the coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan, China. As the New York Times disclosed:
Though the CIA did not return any evidence to support his theory, Pottinger has continued to promote the conclusion that the coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan lab, despite quietly admitting that the virus was not man-made or genetically modified. As CBS reported in its interview on February 21, 2021:
Much of the initial alarm that Covid might be a supervirus from the Wuhan lab arose because of the frightening videos of Wuhan residents spontaneously dying in January 2020, and because Xi Jinping decided to shut down Wuhan, where the lab was. However, all of those videos were soon proven fake, and US intelligence has confirmed that the virus was spreading in Wuhan by November 2019 at the latest. A growing body of research suggests that the virus did not start either in the Wuhan lab or the Wuhan wet market, and a number of studies from various continents have shown that the virus was also spreading undetected all over the world by November 2019 at the latest, many months before lockdowns began.
Covid’s origins remain a mystery, and leading scientists and policymakers were nowhere near transparent enough about their panic that the virus might have come from a lab in early 2020. However, given that the national security community has quietly admitted Covid is not genetically modified, it began spreading undetected globally many months before lockdowns, and it did not cause Wuhan residents to spontaneously die, the question of whether Covid came from the lab would appear to be a moot point from a national security perspective.
Furthermore, in my book and elsewhere, there is a growing body of evidence that the CCP used a variety of clandestine means to promote the idea that Covid came from a lab, both to stoke fear and to mislead the western intelligence community from the CCP’s well-documented campaign for global adoption of China’s virus containment measures. Likewise, Pottinger has continually promoted the idea that Covid came from a lab, and prodded the intelligence community to do the same, while urging the adoption of China’s virus containment measures. Pottinger’s credulousness in sharing and promoting scientific concepts and policies from China including asymptomatic spread, universal masking, quarantines, shutdowns, and remdesivir further belies the notion that the fixation on the Wuhan lab serves any legitimate national security interest.
In summary, as Deputy National Security Advisor, Matt Pottinger played a singularly outsized role in shaping America’s disastrous response to Covid by taking the following actions:
- Throughout January 2020, Pottinger unilaterally called White House meetings unbeknownst to those in attendance and breached protocol to ratchet up alarm about the new coronavirus based on information from his own sources in China, despite having no official intelligence to back up his alarmism.
- Despite having no background in science or public health, beginning in February 2020, Pottinger embarked on a months-long campaign to urge the adoption of universal masking and travel quarantines in response to the coronavirus based on information from his own sources in China. However, there does not appear to be a single picture of Pottinger wearing a mask anywhere on the Internet.
- Pottinger popularized the idea of shutdowns within the White House using a questionable study on the 1918 flu pandemic comparing outcomes between Philadelphia and St. Louis, a month before this study received any significant attention from media outlets in 2020.
- Pottinger specifically courted Deborah Birx to serve as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, who then embarked on a months-long campaign for lockdowns that were as long and strict as possible across the United States.
- Despite having no background in science or public health, Pottinger appears to have promoted the idea of mass testing for the coronavirus.
- Pottinger appears to have endorsed use of the drug remdesivir as a possible Covid therapy based on information from a doctor in China.
- Pottinger has continually promoted the conclusion that the coronavirus came from a lab, and specifically prodded the US intelligence community to do the same, regardless of evidence to support that conclusion, while simultaneously urging the global adoption of China’s virus containment measures.
In Pottinger’s speeches, he often discusses the need for more grassroots populism in China.
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Pottinger may have simply been overly-trusting of his sources, thinking they were the little people in China trying to help their American friends. But why did Pottinger push so hard for sweeping Chinese policies like mask mandates that were far outside his field of expertise? Why did he so often breach protocol? Why seek out and appoint Deborah Birx?
Pottinger’s zealousness in endorsing these sweeping policies is even more bewildering because it’s widely known in the intelligence community that the CCP’s primary focus is on information warfare—“superseding their cultural and political values” to those of the west and undermining the western values that Xi Jinping sees as threatening, outlined in his leaked Document No. 9: “independent judiciaries,” “human rights,” “western freedom,” “civil society,” “freedom of the press,” and the “free flow of information on the internet.”
Though political conditions in China have deteriorated rapidly, Pottinger is supposed to know that—that’s why he had the Top Secret security clearance and the big job in the National Security Council. In fact, we know how rapidly conditions in China have deteriorated in part because Matt Pottinger is the one who told us. The only reason anyone accepted all this information and guidance from these Chinese sources is that it came through Pottinger.
I certainly can’t pass judgment. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like we’ve been struck by a smooth criminal.
Michael P Senger is an attorney and author of Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World. This article was originally published on Substack.