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Ex-deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger faults China for trying to cover up coronavirus

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The former deputy national security adviser says China turned to its military to try to "contain it until it was too late."

Video Transcript

MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to "Face The Nation." Matthew Pottinger was the deputy national security advisor during the Trump administration and one of the first people inside the White House to sound the alarm about the coronavirus as it emerged last year.

He had previously worked as a journalist in China and later a Marine Corps intelligence officer. Yesterday, he spoke with us in what he said was the spirit of sharing information about what he thinks still needs to be fixed within the government to deal with future pandemics.

MATTHEW POTTINGER: The Chinese government was not sharing useful data with anyone in the world. The World Health Organization was parroting misinformation about this virus. They were they were claiming that it is not featuring significant human to human spread. They continued for weeks, even months, to claim that there was not a significant amount of asymptomatic spread.

So that misled our public health experts. I was able to call doctors on the ground in China in late January, and they were already telling me, look, this thing spreads asymptomatically. Half of the cases or more are asymptomatic. That was a different story from what the Chinese government was telling.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why is it that you were seeing and hearing things from doctors that the official health organizations were not getting?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: We had about a dozen CDC officers in China. We have lots of CDC officers in the United States who deal with Chinese doctors. I had covered the SARS epidemic back in 2003 when I was living in China writing for the "Wall Street Journal." So I dusted off some of my old contacts and talked to Chinese doctors who had firsthand information about this pandemic. And they were very open. They said yeah, this thing is not going to be like SARS 2003. It's going to be like the 1918 flu pandemic, because it's spreading silently.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Was the administration being intentionally misled here or was it a problem in terms of how our own public health officials consumed information?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: we Were a little bit too credulous. We were waiting to be fed information when the nature of that regime meant that we were not going to get that information. They had a strong incentive to mislead their own public and the rest of the world about the nature of this virus.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the World Health Organization has said that COVID-19 was circulating in Wuhan, China in late 2019. Why didn't US health officials or US intelligence know earlier about this threat?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Well, US intelligence wasn't focused on these kinds of questions. They were relying on the CDC. The problem was the Chinese Communist Party did not turn to their CDC to deal with this crisis. They turned to their military, and our CDC did not have relations established with the Chinese military.

So the director of the Chinese CDC, based on public reporting, didn't know either. The Chinese CDC director did not know that this thing was circulating until the last day of December, which is incredible when you think about that. So it looks like the Chinese CDC, to some extent, was cut out, because the Chinese Communist Party turned to its military to try to cover this thing up, to try to contain it, until it was too late.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the Biden administration, and their national security advisor, Jake Sullivan said he has deep concerns about the World Health Organization's recent report and Chinese interference in it.

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Look, the World Health Organization made all sorts of untruthful or misinformed claims about this virus. So the WHO has a lot to answer for. When it comes to this investigation into the origins, unfortunately we're seeing a panel that's been sent to China that is deeply conflicted. You have people who were hand-selected by the Chinese government. They had a veto over who could come in.

MARGARET BRENNAN: US intelligence has said COVID, according to wide scientific consensus, was not manmade or genetically modified. You are not in any way alleging that it was, are you?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: No. If you weigh the circumstantial evidence, the ledger on the side of an explanation that says that this resulted from some kind of human error, it far outweighs the side of the scale that says this was some natural outbreak. We have very strong reason to believe that the Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory, going all the way back to at least 2017.

We have good reason to believe that there was an outbreak of flu like illness among researchers working in the Wuhan Institute of virology in the fall of 2019, immediately before the first documented cases came to light.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what you're referring to is some information that the State Department declassified right before the end of the Trump administration. And it said that you have reason to believe a COVID-like disease was circulating in autumn of 2019 in China. Is there evidence to back up that assessment?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: There is. And that was a very carefully crafted statement, carefully crafted so as not to overstate the case-- it was making the case was making was for following up on these important leads.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Let's unpack some of what you were saying about the response here at home. It's been widely reported that you went into the Oval Office alongside national security advisor Robert O'Brien and told President Trump at the end of January that this would be the greatest national security threat that he ever faced. Did he understand the gravity of what you were saying at that time?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: I think he did. That was something that Robert O'Brien told the president. To the president's credit he decided to shut down travel from China.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Around that same time, the American public is being told that this is not a direct threat to them. Robert O'Brien was on Face The Nation saying exactly that.

ROBERT O'BRIEN: Right now, there's no reason for Americans to panic. This is something that is a low risk, we think, in the US.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that what you thought at the time?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: I thought that it was going to be potentially quite devastating. You could match that against quotes from a great number of public health experts in this country and abroad who were saying similar things, because we did not have hard evidence from the Chinese government that this thing was as dangerous as it was. So my view was let's prepare for the worst.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So in preparing for the worst inside the National Security Council, you started telling your staffers to wear masks. Yet, the American public wasn't told definitively by the CDC to wear masks until April. Why?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Remember, we misjudged the nature of this thing to think that it was like flu. One of the mistakes that followed on from that was the misjudgment by public health officials in this country to to not advocate for the widespread generalized use of face coverings, cloth masks, surgical masks, and what have you. And that was they feared shortages.

Rightly. We'd put all of our mask making supply chains into, guess where? China. And China was not making it easy for us to get access to additional supplies. So the CDC-- that was an understandable thing to do. But it then made the mistake of conflating that with a set of advice that masks don't work, effectively, for the general public.

That was a big mistake. Robert O'Brien and I weren't really willing to wait. And so we thought that the risk of a outbreak in the White House could be potentially devastating for the United States. It that would create a national security risk. And so in early April, we started looking for supplies of masks. I ended up calling a foreign government.

I called some senior officials in Taiwan, just to ask for lessons learned. Taiwan had done better than probably any other country in the world at containing this virus. And so in the course of my conversation I asked whether they had masks available. They agreed to send a shipment of half a million masks just a couple of days later.

We put those masks into the national stockpiles, so they'd be available to frontline medical workers. I made sure that one box got delivered to the White House and was disseminated through the NSC and the White House medical unit.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you knew enough to call a foreign government to ask for masks, but the American public wasn't being told yet to wear them, and the president wasn't wearing them. How do you make sense of that?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Yeah, it's frustrating. The mask misstep cost us dearly. It was the one tool that was widely available, at least homemade cotton masks were widely available. It was the one effective, widely available tool that we had in the arsenal to deal with this. Public health officials were stuck in this sort of flu mentality.

It was a grave misstep. The other really grave misstep, and this is the one that I think we haven't rectified yet, and we've got to rectify it. Has to do with the collection and analysis of critical data about how this virus is spreading in real time, so that we can stay ahead of it and ensure that that we don't get sucker punched by a new variant. That could compromise the effectiveness of our vaccine.

And this is an area where the Centers for Disease Control has stumbled very, very badly. I know that the new director, Dr. Walinski, is working hard on trying to get a far greater number of samples of this virus genetically sequenced, which is critical. Everyone should give her as much support to her in that endeavor as possible. But there are cultural and organizational problems that still need to be rectified at the CDC if we're going to have a chance at success, both in bottling up this pandemic and also preventing the next one.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Inside the White House, the commander in chief himself got COVID. I mean, as a national security risk, did you ever look and say who exposed him, and figure out how that happened?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: I mean, it was a terrible day. I was overseas when we got the news that the president had been infected. It was scary.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But was it-- should there have been a real contact tracing effort within the White House to pin down the source of the outbreak? I mean wasn't that a national security lapse?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: You've got to remember at that moment, we had multiple cases. It may have had to do in part with the quality of the tests that we were using. There was a range of different tests that the White House was using to screen staff. Some were more effective than others. But I'm not certain that there was a failure to do that kind of contact tracing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be back in a moment with more of our interview. Stay with us.

We want to go back to our conversation with former Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger.

I've heard you and all the criticisms of the CDC and you've highlighted some really specific areas for them to improve.

MATTHEW POTTINGER: My view is that they should establish a new super body for pandemic preparedness and response within the CDC, probably move it from Atlanta into Washington DC, so that that person who's in charge of that can also be attached to the White House.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So this is your prime reform to the CDC to prevent us from being suckerpunched the next time?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: That's one of them. The other one would be to create a centers for lessons learned, like the military has for each of its service branches. You have a quasi-independent body of investigators who can go in and talk to anybody, and everybody, collect lessons learned in real time, and then report-- it's important that the director of the CDC and the other senior leadership actually listen to those reports and implement the lessons learned so that you've got a living organization that's learning.

That is not, unfortunately, what the CDC is today. There's-- so the final thing, really, about the CDC is cultural. The CDC has developed over the years, even though it's got great talent in there, and well-meaning people, and a lot of expertise, it's developed an academic kind of mindset.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When you say the CDC, are you talking about Director Redfield?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Bob Redfield did the very best that he could with what he had. I'm talking about institutionally, in the belly of this institution, CDC was unwilling to partner with industrial labs to do tens of thousands of sequences so that you could actually see where this thing was going. They wanted to do it internally. And I think the reason for that is they want the data themselves so that they can publish.

There's a very powerful incentive within CDC culture to partner with academic institutions rather than private institutions, and to collect data, submit for peer review articles that burnish your credentials. That's a very slow process. That's not the kind of incentive you want for dealing with a fast-moving pandemic.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How much of this is a question of if this should be handled by public health officials at all, or whether a pandemic should be handed over to intelligence officials and handled like a national security threat?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: The intelligence community does need to prioritize the collection of intelligence on these kinds of bio threats, rather than relying strictly on sister to sister relationships between our CDC and public health officials in other countries. But I don't think that the intelligence community is going to be able to do more than that critical role of collecting and analyzing the information.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're clearly thinking a lot of what could have been done differently. Do you think that the Trump administration did the best it could?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: We had an impeachment, the first impeachment trial taking place as the coronavirus task force was meeting at a time when the country wasn't focused on this pandemic. People in the White House were. People at Health And Human Services and at the CDC were.

I never encountered anyone at a senior level who was not deeply seized by the major weight of what we were facing. I do think that people did their best. I'm doing this hot wash, as I call it, in the spirit of trying to help understand that the narrative that it was all political failures at the top is not true.

And so what I'm trying to bring to light here is that we have a deeper problem with the permanent government in how we are organized culturally and organizationally to deal with this pandemic and with future ones. I want us to succeed at getting better.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Matt Pottinger, thank you very much for your time.

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Thank you. Thanks a lot, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Our full interview is available on our website as well as on our "Face The Nation" podcast platform.