A day before President Donald Trump departed for the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, several top officials gathered in the Oval Office to strategize about Trump’s highly anticipated meeting there with China’s president.
Seated around Trump’s Resolute Desk were Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. On couches a few feet away were White House chief of staff John Kelly, Trump’s son in law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, and Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council’s top Asia hand. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro joined by speakerphone.
Before the discussion ended, Pence stepped out to fetch an outsider for a final briefing about Trump’s Saturday dinner with Chinese president Xi Xinping, which could determine whether the U.S. and China plunge deeper into a potentially disastrous trade war.
That outsider was Michael Pillsbury, a starchy academic at Washington’s conservative Hudson Institute enjoying a remarkable, and unlikely, influence. He has caught the ear of Trump, who during a November press conference proclaimed him “probably the leading authority on China.”
The former Reagan and George H.W. Bush Pentagon official has spent decades in the cold, dismissed by critics as a mix of conspiratorial and self-promoting. But now, current and former Trump officials say he is among the most important voices shaping a confrontational U.S. turn towards China which some analysts fear could trigger a new global cold war.
In addition to occasionally conferring with Pillsbury directly, Trump also catches and approves of his frequent television appearances, in which the China hand often lavishes praise on the president.
Pillsbury — a fluent Mandarin speaker who makes regular visits to China — has sometimes acted as a middle man between the White House and China’s government.
In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that he had discussed Trump’s trade policies — which have recently included mounting tariffs on Chinese goods — with Wang Huiyao, the head of a Beijing think tank with ties to China’s communist leadership. During a September visit to Hudson, Wang publicly unveiled proposals to tamp down the trade fight, which Pillsbury relayed to the Trump White House.
A persistent misconception is that his wealth — reflected in his posh Georgetown home — comes from the Pillsbury flour fortune of “doughboy” fame.
The New York Times also wrote a piece about Pillsbury which adds some interesting tidbits, including the fact that he plays tennis with Peter Navarro and his house in Georgetown is worth $7.5 million.
A 2005 Wall Street Journal article says that he is a member of the Pillsbury flour family. It also says that in the 1980s, he lost and regained his security clearance amid allegations of leaking secret information to the press.
When he was 27 years old, Pillsbury joined the RAND Corporation as a China scholar. At that think tank, he did classified work for the US government.
A few weeks ago, Vice President Mike Pence gave an aggressive at the Hudson Institute that caused Beijing to lash out at the Trump Administration.
Here is a recent Think Tank Watch piece about how the Hudson Institute has become a major anti-China platform.