Inside the National Security Council, a rising sense of dread
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 officially reported its first 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 marine turned Trump deputy national security adviser, was in charge, reporting up to his boss Robert O’Brien. Anthony Ruggiero, a nuclear-weapons expert who previously was 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 100,000 to 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, has pushed for more aggressive measures like travel restrictions and mask usage. In January, he blazed through a copy of John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” a meticulous account of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. More recently, he has 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. Pottinger and O’Brien did not respond to requests for comment.
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 then-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.