Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 shattered a fragile understanding between Washington and Beijing and put the most important relationship of the 21st century in the hands of a novice. Trump had attacked China from the campaign trail and almost as soon as he entered office, he brought the long-simmering rivalry between the two countries to a full boil. Complicating the picture considerably, he also struck up a “friendship” with Chinese President Xi Jinping — and their private conversations would undermine his broader administration’s response to the historic challenge of a rising China. All the while, Trump’s advisers fought with each other to steer U.S. policy from within.
Trump’s approach to China in the first three years of his presidency sparked both a trade war and a tech war. At the same time, various sectors of American society — most notably, universities, Silicon Valley and Wall Street — awakened to the audacious and widespread influence campaigns perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party on U.S. soil. But as 2019 wound down, Trump’s team was still trying to put in place a trade deal so the president could enter 2020 with a foreign policy accomplishment he could run on. In early 2020, they succeeded. But a looming global health crisis would soon render this U.S.-China detente short-lived.
The first National Security Council meeting on the strange new flu spreading around China was held on Jan. 14, one day before Trump was scheduled to sign the “Phase One” trade deal between Washington and Beijing. The meeting’s objective was to get answers to some basic questions. What do we know about this thing? Do we have eyes on the ground? Where is the best information coming from? What are the Chinese saying about it? But all that came back were shrugs. The health officials said that information was scarce. The U.S. government had been trying to get permission to send Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personnel to Wuhan, where the outbreak began, for more than a week without success. The World Health Organization (WHO) had been issuing statements about the outbreak but had not been allowed to visit Wuhan either.
The next day had been set aside for the East Room signing of the trade deal. Ever a showman, Trump had invited billionaires, lawmakers, senior officials, family members and friends to join the event. The deal itself was touted as a win by both sides, although both exaggerated its limited scope and impact. Throughout the festivities, the Chinese representatives didn’t say a word about the virus. And it didn’t even occur to the U.S. officials hosting the Chinese delegation to ask.
Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger was an exception. The former Wall Street Journal reporter had covered the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China and was in touch with his former sources inside China, including doctors on the ground. His wife, Yen, is a trained virologist and former CDC official. His brother, Paul, is a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Matthew Pottinger saw the pandemic coming before anyone else in the White House. But most people in the Trump administration didn’t want to believe what was unfolding — or at least didn’t want to speak up.
On Monday, Jan. 27, with the blessing of his boss, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, Pottinger called a Cabinet-level official meeting and chaired it, with the No. 1 or 2 officials from all the relevant agencies: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, CDC Director Robert Redfield, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci were all there.