Donald Trump
Donald Trump / Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Meet Matthew Pottinger, the former journalist who became the president’s top Asia hand.

Matthew Pottinger must have been surprised to learn that he doesn’t exist. As the top official for Asia on President Donald Trump’s national security council, Pottinger had briefed dozens of reporters about North Korea two days before Trump angrily tweeted that a New York Times article citing his remarks had relied on an official who “doesn’t exist.” The president was furious that the Times had paraphrased Pottinger, who spoke on background and thus could not be identified in its story, as saying it would be “impossible” for Trump to go forward with his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because there wasn’t enough time to prepare.

“Use real people, not phony sources,”

Trump fumed.

A debate ensued online about whether the Times accurately characterized Pottinger, who never used the word “impossible,” although he did come close, saying that the summit date is “in 10 minutes, and it’s going to be — you know…” without finishing the thought.

But there is no debate about whether Pottinger is real. More than that, he is among Trump’s longest-serving aides. As the national security council’s director for Asia, the sandy-haired and boyish-looking 45-year-old is the president’s top adviser on North Korea and China. He organized Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia last fall, during which he was rarely far from the president’s side. He has played a central role in coordinating Trump’s North Korea policy since early last year — one reason he was among a handful of U.S. officials to fly into Pyongyang earlier this month with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And he has been in the thick of White House preparations for a possible summit with Kim.

Pottinger, says former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, is “one of the most significant people in the entire U.S. government.”

That comforts friends and admirers who say Pottinger is among the most grounded and thoughtful — “sane,” as more than one shorthanded it — people in Trump’s orbit. “I have found him variously to be smart, insightful, inquisitive and not dogmatic,” said the Harvard professor and national security strategist Graham Allison, who has discussed China policy with Pottinger. “He is loyal to the team — but listening.”

While hawks like Bannon love his tough views towards China, even Democrats call his views basically mainstream. Still, some foreign policy experts marvel at what they call the disparity between his job title and his resume, and wonder what a nice guy like him is doing in a place like this. Because even Matt Pottinger probably never expected to wind up here.

Some people organize their lives around landing a senior job on the national security council. Pottinger wound up in his more or less by accident. The son of a former Justice Department official turned Wall Street banker, he studied China in college and learned to speak fluent Mandarin before taking a job with Reuters as a China correspondent. Within a few years, not yet 30, he was the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing bureau chief. As a reporter in a country without a free media, Pottinger was harassed, arrested and forced to flush notes down the toilet to prevent their seizure. He was once even punched in the face at a Beijing Starbucks by a government thug who warned him to leave the country.