On the second day in January, as a mysterious pathogen was infecting its way across China, Dr. Robert Redfield contacted the National Security Council.
The U.S. government had unconfirmed information about what they believed to be a novel coronavirus, the CDC director said. Better pay attention.
In Washington, tensions with Iran and the impeachment drama on Capitol Hill were dominating the discussion. But behind the scenes at the NSC, a lower-level policy team was working frantically to understand the virus and figure out what needed to be done.
As some members of the team worked around the clock on their response and looked at models showing dire outcomes for the United States if stringent public-health measures were not put in place, some felt they were screaming into a void: Based on what they were learning about the virus, things were going to get bad. Really bad. The U.S. needed to act aggressively.
The White House’s initial response was handled by the Counterproliferation and Biodefense directorate within the NSC — the so-called WMD unit, which had assumed responsibility for coordinating the administration’s response to a pandemic after a reorganization earlier in Trump’s term.
Officials in the WMD unit pored over reports out of China about the virus. But much remained unknown. After China reported its first official death from the virus on Jan. 11, a small policy committee within the NSC began meeting almost daily, according to an internal schedule of the response and meetings reviewed by POLITICO. From mid-January to early March, more than 50 meetings and calls with NSC committees and the coronavirus task force were held.
Matthew Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter in China turned soldier turned Trump deputy national security adviser, was in charge, reporting up to his boss Robert O’Brien. Anthony Ruggiero, a nuclear-weapons expert who was previously a think-tank scholar and Treasury and State official, ran the WMD unit and relied heavily on biodefense specialists’ expertise.
Looking at the data in January and February felt like staring into a bleak crystal ball, one administration official said. China was refusing to grant access to U.S. experts, which aides worried would lead to a delay in America’s response. A widespread breakout in Iran was deemed likely. And they feared the United States would not be spared, either.
“We need to prepare for what happens when we get into the 10,000-plus range,” an official working on the response said at the beginning of March, when the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. was still in the low hundreds. By April 1, only a month later, that number had exploded into the hundreds of thousands, and the virus had spread to all 50 states. The administration’s models are now projecting between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths from the virus, and much of the country has enacted stringent “social distancing” policies that would have been unimaginable months ago.
Pottinger, who covered the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s in China as a reporter, pushed for more aggressive measures like travel restrictions and mask usage — and has even started acting to ensure continuity within the NSC in case the virus strickens members of his team.
Two and a half weeks ago, Pottinger moved out of his old office in the West Wing into an isolated part of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, according to another administration official and an NSC official. The administration official said Pottinger also took half of the NSC’s front-office support staff with him.
Although Pottinger is on frequent phone calls with O’Brien, he doesn’t interact with him much in person anymore in case one of them is infected. And Pottinger, as the deputy, is ready to step in temporarily should O’Brien get the virus and be unable to perform his duties.
After O’Brien took over after John Bolton’s sudden resignation in September, he reinstituted more regular meetings of the so-called principals and deputies committee meetings, consisting of top officials from Cabinet agencies that touch on national security. The virus has complicated that process, an administration official said, but only somewhat: The NSC is still doing the interagency meetings, but with more video participation. Some NSC staffers are also teleworking, according to the NSC official, but many are still reporting to their offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building each day.
But some things have changed: As part of the NSC’s continuity planning, which started in January, around a month ago officials split up the Situation Room’s employees so that half of them work in a secret location on the White House complex and are physically separated from the other half of SitRoom employees, who are in the basement of the West Wing. They all have access to masks.
Pottinger, in fact, has emerged as one of the biggest internal proponents of preventative mask usage, having studied the impact widespread mask wearing has had on blunting the spread of respiratory illness in Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.
While former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney advised staffers in the White House not to wear a mask — a recommendation in line with CDC guidelines at the time — Pottinger has been wearing a standard surgical mask for weeks. (When Pottinger and O’Brien do meet in person, they both wear masks.)
Pottinger has even worn a mask in front of Trump, out of concern that he could spread the virus to the president or another top official even if he was asymptomatic. Trump found the NSC deputy’s mask “wryly amusing,” the administration official said.
Trump is preparing to soon encourage Americans to wear face coverings to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus, three individuals with knowledge of the planned announcement told POLITICO. The president’s planned guidance would tell Americans to use homemade coverings, like cloth masks, scarves or bandannas, when they’re outside their homes.
Starting in late February or early March, Pottinger also began advocating that a Navy corpsman check people’s temperatures before they entered the Oval Office, and that everyone visiting or entering the White House also be checked. Other officials who also advised that step be taken include O’Brien; Dr. Sean Conley, Trump’s White House physician; and deputy chief of staff for operations Tony Ornato.
Mulvaney and his team initially opposed temperature checks, though Pottinger repeatedly lobbied the acting chief of staff to order the move. Mulvaney was openly scornful of those alarmed by the outbreak at the time: On Feb. 28, he told attendees at a conservative conference that coronavirus was only getting so much attention because the media thinks “this is going to be the thing that brings down the president.”
“Mick felt like Matt was overhyping the threat and not being politically astute,” said the administration official. “Matt is, like, the least politically astute [person] and prides himself on having no political sense or filter and Mick is, like, the opposite — there’s no substance and only political filter. So it was an interesting clash.”
A senior administration official denied that Mulvaney and Pottinger clashed. But it was only after Trump ousted Mulvaney — which happened on March 6 — that the White House began doing temperature checks, when Ornato ordered it on March 14.
Pottinger has had less success in getting Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to stay as separate as possible, just in case one of them gets coronavirus: The two men continue to have lunch together on their regular schedule, and appear together at the nightly briefings of the Pence-led coronavirus task force.
(Asked last week whether there were any plans to separate them, an administration official would say only that government continuity plans are “being worked constantly,” while a senior White House official said that “continuity of government protocols are always in place, for every administration.”)
One senior administration official noted that the NSC’s decision to consciously separate its leadership is an exception to how most major offices in the Trump administration are handling the crisis.
“As many people who can are working from home, and people who are at the White House are trying to solve the crisis for the American people from their offices,” said the official.
Pottinger is “a very cautious human.”