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Former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger on "Face the Nation"

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Margaret Brennan talks COVID-19 origins, China's role and more with the former Trump official.

Video Transcript

MARGARET BRENNAN: Matt, thanks so much for making time for us. I wonder what you think of the Biden administration's handling of the pandemic so far.

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, well, the Biden administration was able to inherit a very strong vaccine program in the form of Operation Warp Speed. I'm wishing them the best. We're all depending on the Biden administration's success at containing this thing. And I'm here today, in part, to do something that Marines are used to doing. The military has a very good tradition of doing what we call a hot wash. And all that is is that at the end of every patrol, at the end of every mission, we circle up and talk about all the mistakes that we made in order to try to correct them and do better the next time. So it's really in that spirit that I wanted to highlight some of the mistakes that were made by the public health establishment-- that is, by the experts-- so that we can learn from those mistakes and improve the chance that President Biden and his team are able to put a lid on this thing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And so, to that point, did you have a chance-- before you left the administration in January-- did you have a chance to brief the incoming administration?

MATT POTTINGER: I had the opportunity to brief some of the members of the incoming National Security Council team. I left a little bit early. I know that Robert O'Brien the National Security advisor, and all of our senior directors, did a warm handover, lots of documents, lots of explanation. But remember, the National Security Council wasn't the primary body responsible for the COVID crisis. That was the task force. So I wasn't really involved in the handover as far as COVID was concerned.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, to that end, you think that you have information about the pandemic response that the Biden administration needs to know?

MATT POTTINGER: No, I do, absolutely. I mean, I would start with just reviewing, again, some of the missteps that were made. The first misjudgment by the public health establishment was misjudging the nature of this virus. And so the playbook that we threw at it was the influenza playbook. Remember we'd been preparing for-- really for decades-- for a flu pandemic. But COVID behaves differently from flu in really critical ways that led us astray. The most important, of course, is that it spreads asymptomatically. And that misjudgment led to the next few mistakes. One, of course, was that we were screening for the disease as if it were flu. Throwing tools at it like temperature screening, which we're not going to work when you had asymptomatic spread. As well as diagnostics. With flu, you don't need a massive effort at diagnostics, because we already know so much about the flu. With COVID, you have to be testing-- you really need to be doing millions of tests a day. And so what that would have required is a radical scaling up of the partnership between government and private laboratories to scale up that diagnostic ability. So that was a misstep. A second misstep--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So why wasn't that happening in January? You were talking about temperature checks there and not screening for asymptomatic people. Whose fault was that?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, well you have to remember that 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 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. And where we should have been careful, more careful, was to listen to individual doctors on the ground in China, who were actually giving us the clues. They were sharing better information with us than the Chinese government was. And that's-- 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, but we should have had more feelers out, and shouldn't have been relying on the Chinese government to spoon feed us what we would need to know.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And to be clear, you are calling people you knew because you had been a journalist in China for years. You then went on to become an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. So you were calling people outside of the government, but you are inside the Trump administration. So why is it that you were seeing and hearing things from doctors that the official health organizations were not getting?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, it's an indictment of the WHO, certainly. But it also troubles me that the CDC was not talking to a broader range of people on the ground. We had we had about a dozen CDC officers in China. We have lots of CDC officers in the United States who deal with Chinese doctors, but you're right. 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: And Dr. Fauci recounted to Bob Woodward in that book "Rage" that he was hearing you say these things in January and thought you were overreacting. And then months later, then said, Matt was right. Was the administration being intentionally misled here? Or was it a problem in terms of how our own public health officials consumed information?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, I don't think anyone in the United States was intentionally misleading anybody else. I think that we were accustomed to dealing with governments that act in good faith. And when you're talking about the Chinese Communist Party, an authoritarian regime that cares about nothing other than its own survival, we were a little bit too credulous. We were 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. And that's why we're paying the price that we paid. So that misjudgment about the nature of the virus because we were waiting for information-- by the way, we should have our intelligence community prioritizing the collection of information about biothreats, including natural or unnatural biothreats, when it comes to these kinds of totalitarian dictatorships that are not going to come clean. We would have had better information from the government of, certainly, Rwanda, Kenya. Any number of developing nations would have had better information faster for us, and for the world, than Beijing was willing to share because they had a profound incentive to cover this thing up.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the World Health Organization has said that COVID-19 was circulating in Wuhan, China in late 2019. But it took until January 2nd of 2020 before the CDC made that first call to the National Security Council, where you worked. Why didn't US health officials or US intelligence know earlier about this threat?

MATT POTTINGER: Well, US intelligence wasn't focused on these kinds of questions. They were relying on the CDC. The CDC-- our CDC in China-- had a working relationship with the Chinese CDC. We'd funded it. We had helped them with their HIV pandemic. We'd trained many of their officials, including the head of the Chinese 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. I mean, 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. And the consequences we're all feeling now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, I mean, that's an incredible allegation to say it was an intentional cover up. Some have looked at this and said this is what a clunky bureaucratic communist regime functions like. You have low level officials who are incentivized not to tell the truth to their superiors or risk getting in trouble. Why do you think that this was intentional?

MATT POTTINGER: Well, we know that China's national propaganda outlet, China Central Television, ran stories about the arrest of, for example, Dr. Lee Wenliang, who was one of the early whistleblowers about this case. They accused him in a national television broadcast of rumor mongering. And you had so many different components of government-- national, local, local hospital officials, others who were all being told, shut your mouths. Don't send notes on your WeChat account about it. Don't send social media. Don't tell anyone. You've got to keep this thing secret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Chinese CDC was the prime source of information for our CDC. Were their health officials intentionally being blocked from sharing information with US health officials. Is that what you're saying? That this was a military interference and project?

MATT POTTINGER: Well, I think that there were undoubtedly officials in China who wanted to share more information than they could. I spoke to some doctors, as I mentioned. I'm sure that there were conscientious well-meaning officials in the Chinese system who would have wanted to share a lot more data than they were allowed to. Well I'll give you one example. The only reason that we got a sequence of the genetics of this virus in January was because a Chinese laboratory decided to share that information. They did it proactively. That lab got shut down for, quote unquote, rectification within 24 hours of sharing that. So I think that, no doubt, there were people who wanted to share much more aggressively, but were being muzzled by the Chinese Communist Party.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, to be honest with you, credibility was a big problem for the Trump administration, as you know. And so when President Trump made comments about China and some of the things that we're talking about now, a lot of people viewed it and said this is a deflection and a deflection away from his own failures to protect the American public.

MATT POTTINGER: Well that's why we have to have a press. Well I'd say, the press has to listen to what the president of the United States says and then weigh it against other information. You know, challenge the Chinese government as well. If there's any government you want to be skeptical of, it's the Chinese Communist Party. It's no coincidence the Chinese government began kicking out of the country multiple foreign journalists right around the time that all of this was happening. They claimed that it was because they saw what they thought was a racist headline, and so they started they started emptying out the foreign news bureaus-- the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and others. What they were really doing was going after foreign reporters who could speak Chinese language, who were working on this Wuhan case, or working on the genocide that's taking place in Xinjiang. In other words, sensitive stories that were a threat to the credibility of the Chinese Communist Party. That's why they were pushing out all of the foreign correspondents, so that they couldn't actually have an easy time pursuing these kinds of leads.

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. He's also calling for China to make data available from the earliest stages of the outbreak. This sounds exactly like what you were asking for.

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, no, I'm really glad that Jake Sullivan made that statement. Look, the World Health Organization made all sorts of untruthful or misinformed claims about this virus. That it doesn't spread human to human, that it's not asymptomatic. They praised the Chinese government for shutting down domestic travel in China while simultaneously criticizing the United States for shutting down international travel, which is a morally and logically indefensible position. 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. It's made up of people who have benefited from public funding to work in the very lab where this thing may have actually originated, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. You have people who were hand-selected by the Chinese government. They had a veto over who could come in. And some of those people were conflicted. And so you have a situation where it's like you're turning to the rabbits to investigate what happened to the lettuce that they were guarding. And so it's not a credible exercise that we've seen undertaken to get to the roots of where this thing originated.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But to be clear, I mean, US intelligence has said, COVID, according to wide scientific consensus, was not man-made or genetically modified. You are not, in any way, alleging that it was, are you?

MATT POTTINGER: No. What I'm stating is basically what you saw stated in a very carefully crafted fact sheet that the State Department put out in January. That statement says right at the very beginning, we don't know where this thing originated. It may have come from a natural jump from animals into the human species. It may have come and resulted from an accident in a laboratory. And we've seen accidents take place in recent years, including in some of China's most well regarded laboratories. They had an accidental outbreak in 2004 of the SARS virus, which they were studying. That was a fatal outbreak. It infected nine people. And so if you weigh the circumstantial evidence-- because we don't have hard evidence. The Chinese government is making it very difficult to pin down and pursue hard evidence.

But 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. Now one of the things that we put out in that statement were some questions, some leads, that we were hoping WHO-affiliated investigators would look at, that we hope journalists will look at, that we would hope that Beijing would come clean on-- although we're not holding our breath on that. Some of those things include the fact that 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.

But immediately before the first documented cases came to light, we also know that they were working on viruses-- doing gain of function research study-- technical sorts of experiments with viruses, including a virus that was discovered in the southwestern province of Yunnan that is most similar to the virus that we all now know as COVID. So there are a lot of leads that we put out there that I don't see any evidence that this panel of researchers affiliated with the show were able to get any information on any of these questions. They haven't even addressed answers to any of these questions.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what you're referring to is some information that the State Department declassified right before the end of the Trump administration that detailed some of the things you just laid out there. 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?

MATT POTTINGER: There is. And that was a very carefully crafted statement-- carefully crafted so as not to overstate the case that was making-- the case it was making was for following up on these important leads. So this was a document that was scrubbed by every department within every bureau within the State Department. Was looked at very carefully by the National Security Council staff, intelligence officers, Health and Human Services. This was not a haphazard set of allegations that were laid out in that statement.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the Wuhan Institute of Virology is this lab that was near the market that so much early reporting was focused on. And in this lab, it's been characterized really as a private research facility. But you are saying here that the Chinese military was running its own experiments inside that lab. You think-- do you think that this was just an accident that really spiraled out of control?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, I think that-- I don't-- I'm not aware of any evidence, even circumstantial evidence, to suggest that this was a deliberate seeding of a pandemic by anybody. But the types of research that were underway, both by the civilian staff of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and also military researchers that they were closely affiliated with, were studies into exactly the kinds of viruses that-- ones that are 96% similar to the virus that's now making us all sick. They were doing gain of function research using humanized mice, for example. That's to say mice that have been genetically modified to express human-like features, human lung tissue, for example. And then pushing viruses through humanized mice, which can sometimes lead-- sometimes intentionally what you're trying to do is study the dynamics of a virus to see what's dangerous about a virus. What do we need to know to protect ourselves from a virus? And in doing that kind of research, it's highly possible that that led to some kind of an accident that seeded the COVID pandemic that's now killed more than two million of our fellow human beings.

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?

MATT POTTINGER: I think he did. That was something that Robert O'Brien told the president. To the president's credit, it was-- I think it was only about 48 hours after that conversation that he took a step that I don't think really any other leader would have taken, which was he decided to shut down travel from China. He followed that up six weeks later with a travel ban on Europe. If European leaders had taken the same step that President Trump took to shut off that travel, we would have bought several more weeks to prepare for this pandemic. It wouldn't have prevented it from coming the United States, but it would have bought us more time. And time obviously was of the essence at that point.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because what you're saying is Chinese Nationals were still traveling into Europe. Europeans could still travel into the United States until mid-March. So there was a huge loophole left open into the United States. So around that same time, though, 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. This is low risk in the US. Is that what you thought at the time?

MATT POTTINGER: I thought that it was going to be potentially quite devastating, but we didn't have hard evidence of that. So Robert's quote on Face the Nation, 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. The Chinese leadership was claiming that it was under control. They were downplaying the risk of human-to-human transmission. They were highly critical of President Trump for imposing that travel ban. 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?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah. Yeah, well this is what I was getting at at the beginning that 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 not advocate for the widespread, generalized use of face coverings, cloth masks, surgical masks, and what have you. So there was a very understandable reason why they did not want to promote significant widespread use of masks at the outset. And that was they feared shortages, rightly. We were fearful that doctors and nurses around the country were not going to have access to masks themselves. Because we had diversified-- we'd failed to diversify our supply chains. 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. And it wasn't until early April that the CDC put out guidance saying, actually, we do think that the American public should wear face coverings. The White House was unwilling to mandate mask usage until the CDC gave that guidance. I mean, we were trying to follow CDC guidance across the US government. Robert O'Brien and I weren't really willing to wait. And so we thought that the risk of an outbreak in the White House could be potentially devastating for the United States. 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. They were producing 10 million masks a day-- high quality surgical masks-- for a country of just 24 million people. And so in the course of my conversation, I asked whether they had masks available. They weren't exporting them at the time. We didn't have access to Taiwan masks, but they agreed to send a shipment of half a million masks just a couple of days later. We put those masks into the national stockpile so they'd be available to frontline medical workers. I made sure that one box out of that 500,000, so a box of 3,600 masks, 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 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. For people hearing this now, it's crazy-making. I mean, how do you make sense of that?

MATT 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. But again, we were stuck in-- public health officials were stuck in this sort of flu mentality. We don't use masks in the United States to deal with flu. Why would we be using them to deal with this new pandemic? 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. Both where it's appearing, but also how its genetics are evolving so that we can stay ahead of it, ensure 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. Walensky, is working hard on trying to get a far greater number of samples of this virus genetically sequenced, which is critical. Everyone should give 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. Matt, I mean, as a national security risk, did you ever look and say who exposed him and figure out how that happened.

MATT POTTINGER: Well, the White House medical unit-- I mean it was a terrible day. I was overseas when we got the news that the president had been infected. It was scary. The White House medical unit was in charge of doing contact tracing and the like. And I know that there's been some public reporting about, at least speculating on, some of the events that may have fed that transmission. I don't have any insight, even as much insight as the medical doctors do at the White House. But yeah, it was it was a tough-- it was a tough thing to learn.

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?

MATT POTTINGER: Well, I'm not sure that there wasn't a thorough contact tracing done on that. But you've got to remember, at that moment, we had multiple cases. You had several people in the White House staff in fairly close time proximity who developed symptoms. 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: I've heard you on all the criticisms of the CDC, and you've highlighted some really specific areas for them to improve. I wonder, from a national security standpoint though-- one of the criticisms from the Biden team when they were on the campaign trail was the decision to not pay attention to the Obama-era playbook on how to handle pandemics. Another criticism was getting rid of a pandemic unit and wrapping it into the bioweapons unit on the National Security Council. Were there national security risks here that were created as a result of these decisions?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, well the one about the structure of the NSC doesn't hold up muster because when we inherited the NSC structure from the previous administration, there were several public health and biodefense related officials who were scattered across the organization, many with very confusing cross-functional reporting chains of command and so forth. That got folded into one shop that had actually a more senior official in charge of it. There was a deputy assistant to the President who was in charge of biothreats and other kinds of weapons of mass destruction threats. At the end of the day, a biothreat like COVID-- it doesn't really matter whether it emerged naturally, or by accident, or as a deliberate threat. The steps that you take to actually deal with it are more or less the same. So it made sense for us to consolidate those officials. We had the same number of officials working on those issues under one roof.

But the playbook itself, again-- because we put the flu paradigm onto this thing, we really failed to understand the ways that this thing was fundamentally different. And that's why we worked so hard to bring someone else in who could work at an even higher level. And that's where Debbie Birx came in. We knew that she had several attributes that were exactly what was needed to help dig us out of-- dig us out of this problem. And so I pursued her very doggedly, and it was good for the country that she came on board. It was tough on Debbie that she came in to be the Pandemic Coordinator. But I do think that there is a role, going forward, in having an institutionalized pandemic coordinator who is organizationally tied to the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC is set up kind of like an academic institution. You've got these siloed centers and within the siloed centers, you have siloed divisions, and siloed branches under those divisions. There is not a super body within the CDC that is able to reach in and do pandemic prevention and response. Those functions are sort of divided. There's a Assistant Secretariat for Pandemic Response at the Health and Human Services Department. And what would happen is CDC and ASPR, as it's known, would sometimes think that the other was responsible for critical functions and then things would fall by the wayside. 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, D.C. 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-- would be to create this new agency or this part of the CDC?

MATT 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. 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. I'll give you an example. Right now we are not sequencing nearly enough samples of this virus to know whether we have a new variant, or a South African variant, or something else that could sucker punch us. Part of the reason for that is that, last year, the CDC was unwilling to partner with private labs that could do this on an industrial scale. They wanted to do it in house--

MARGARET BRENNAN: When you say the CDC-- just to be clear, when you say the CDC, are you talking about Director Redfield?

MATT POTTINGER: I'm talking about the institution as a whole. I'm not pinning this on Bob Redfield. The problems of the CDC predate, by many, many years, Bob Redfield's tenure Bob Redfield did the very best that he could with what he had. I'm talking about, institutionally, in the belly of this institution, the 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 tend 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.

I'll give you another example. The domestic HIV division of the CDC is using decades-old approaches to their analysis of the HIV pandemic in the United States. They don't collect data that's usable from as many as 18 of the US states. It takes them about three years to do the modeling to figure out how many new cases there are a year. So we find out three years later how many new infections there were three years ago. They're not using state of the art labs and lab tests, which we use-- the CDC uses in Africa to an enormously beneficial effect. So we've ended up in a situation where we have 38,000 new cases a year of HIV in this country, when we should be pretty close to zero by now. We spend $30 billion, almost, a year on domestic HIV. And yet, we spend a fraction of that-- about one quarter of that in Africa-- and we have far better outcomes in Africa for HIV than we have here in the United States. And by the way, the good outcomes in Africa are the good work of the CDC. It's the global HIV branch, which is a different silo from the domestic branch. It's just that we're not taking the fantastic work and learning the lessons of our success in Africa and applying them in our own country. So what you have here is a rusty culture. It's accumulating barnacles. It's becoming hidebound, academic, and not a fleet of foot sort of shock force for dealing with these kinds of outbreaks that we're wrestling with now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Your wife's a virologist. I can hear that you're passionate about trying to reform the CDC here. But, fundamentally, 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?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, you're right. My wife actually worked for many years in the labs at the CDC. She helped develop an assay that's used in 60 countries around the world. She's very proud of her service at the CDC. She's very proud of the people who work at the CDC. And she knows what the CDC can do when it's at its best. It's not organized, culturally and organizationally, right now to be at its best. The question about the intelligence community-- the intelligence community does need to prioritize the collection of intelligence on these kinds of threats, rather than relying strictly on sister-to-sister relationships between our CDC and public health officials in other countries. We put an enormous amount of resources into tracking nuclear threats, radiological threats, around the world. We need to be doing something similar, especially on the collection front, when it comes to biothreats. 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. The actual response, we've got to rely on our permanent bureaucracy to do better than it's doing right now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You worked in the Trump administration going back to 2017. And you stuck in there that whole time. I'm wondering why you resigned January 6th?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, you're right. I was in the Trump administration from the first day. And I joke with my wife that it was the mother of all combat deployments. Working at that level, in any administration, is very difficult to stick in there for four years. I'm extremely proud of what we accomplished in our foreign policy, things that were very good for the country. We turned around a decades-old China policy that had been enabling the rise of a hostile totalitarian dictatorship. We made peace between Israel and four Arab states, which was something that the experts said could never happen. And, on the question of war and peace, President Trump was the first US President in decades not to get us embroiled in a new military conflict overseas. And as a veteran of two wars myself, that's something I'm very grateful for. I had been planning on--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you know, at home-- at home, when people hear no deployments overseas and no conflict overseas, they look at the level of division and anger at home and say, what are you talking about?

MATT POTTINGER: Well, I was going to mention that I had made a decision that I was going to leave, even before the election. Robert O'Brien asked me to stay on through the transition, whether we were going to transition to a second Trump term or to a Biden administration. I agreed to do that. But the 6th of January was, I felt that, given the events of that day-- that was the moment where I felt that it was appropriate for me to go.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're talking about the siege of the US Capitol?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, yeah. I saw the same things unfold that the American public saw. I mean, images of violence unfolding on television and that's when I called it quits.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think-- coming up on this grim milestone we're about to see, about half a million Americans who have died from COVID, when you look back, 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?

MATT POTTINGER: Yeah, I think that, having worked closely with the people on the coronavirus task force which took flight at a moment of deep division in the country-- remember 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 the new CDC director, to help our other public health officials, as well as the political leadership at the White House, Health and Human Services and beyond understand that the narrative-- that it was all political failures at the top, is not true. There'll be plenty of analysis. There is already plenty of analysis and plenty of books that are forthcoming that are going to examine political mistakes. And that are going to examine how COVID cost President Trump the 2020 election. There's been less focus, because the press does-- let's face it, the press covers personalities. The press covers politics. It doesn't cover governance that often.

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. Our government does get better when it does this. I've seen the military improve at rapid speed in war zones because lives depend on it. We need the same mentality that the United States Marine Corps has in Al Anbar province in Iraq transplanted to Atlanta, Georgia into the Centers for Disease Control. So that they can task organize and improve the culture in ways that are going to make all the people who work there even prouder to be doing this frontline work to keep us all safe.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Now, I appreciate the download on all of that, all the lessons learned. Just to button up, to clarify, when you were saying you were watching on television what America saw on television, with the siege of the Capitol and that it was too much for you. Do you blame President Trump for that?

MATT POTTINGER: Well, I will let my actions sort of speak for themselves. I mean, Washington, D.C. is the one town in America where words speak louder than actions. In the rest of the country, actions speak louder than words. And I'll let my actions that day speak for themselves.

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

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