WASHINGTON – Peter Navarro’s eagerness to confront, attack and be, as one former associate put it, “a real jerk to people” didn’t serve him well as a political candidate in the 1990s. But it fits what President Donald Trump was looking for to muscle companies to make critical supplies needed to fight the coronavirus.
And it fits much of what Navarro has long wanted as well. As the president's trade adviser, he hasn't been afraid to raise his voice inside the White House and out. The self-styled China hawk has seized on the coronavirus pandemic as the opportune moment to push nationalist trade views that line up with Trump's.
Reliance on foreign-made medical supplies, he says, is the “original sin” that underpins current shortages. China's “non-transparency” on the virus outbreak, he says, cost the U.S. five weeks in preparing for the coming pandemic.
Navarro, who holds a doctorate in economics but has no formal medical training, got into a recent blowup with the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, in the Situation Room when he challenged the doctor's resistance to pushing use of a malaria drug to fight the virus based only on anecdotal evidence.
That same week, word leaked that Navarro had warned in a late January memo about the high potential toll — both in lives and economic damage — from a potential pandemic. Navarro explained that he “felt the need to write that memo” because others in the West Wing weren't taking the threat seriously enough.
His concerns didn't get much traction among others who saw them as more alarmist talk from Navarro. And Trump, for his part, said last week he hadn't read the memo, adding, “Peter writes a lot of memos.”
But the president and Navarro, a former Peace Corps volunteer, have long connected over their shared hard-line views on trade and their willingness to blame China for many of America's ills.
Navarro, 70, has used his time in the spotlight to offer a combative defense of the administration's efforts to slow the spread of the virus. “Who coulda done better on this?" he asked during a recent appearance on “60 Minutes" on CBS. ”I mean, really, think about this."
Perhaps nobody in the administration better fits Trump's nationalist tendencies. The president looks to place blame on China and the World Health Organization for the damage the virus has brought to the United States. Navarro doesn't miss a chance to do the same, telling Fox News on Tuesday that the WHO has “blood on their hands."
WHO declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30. The next day, Trump banned foreigners who had traveled to China in the past 14 days from entering the U.S. In public comments, however, he continued to downplay the threat. On March 10, for example, he said: “Be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.”
Navarro came to Trump's attention with his searing reviews of policies that left American manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage with China. Now, Navarro's job is prodding American companies to make the ventilators, N-95 masks and other equipment that states and health care workers have been calling for as the virus spreads.
“What we’re learning from that is that no matter how many treaties you have, no matter how many alliances, no matter how many phone calls, when push comes to shove you run the risk, as a nation, of not having what you need," Navarro said during a White House briefing earlier this month. He declined to be interviewed for this report.
Trump placed Navarro in charge of overseeing compliance with the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to direct private companies to prioritize orders from the federal government. At Trump's direction, Navarro has used that authority against General Motors and the 3M Company, though some Democrats have called for much more aggressive use of the law.
It’s not the first time Navarro has tangled with the corporate world. His support for tariffs to force other nations into concessions on economic and immigration policy is adamantly opposed by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but matches the president's vision.
“He’s done an incredible job for me in terms of negotiation, in terms of understanding where the world is going, economically," Trump said upon picking Navarro for his latest role.
After winning election in 2016, Trump picked the University of California, Irvine professor to lead a new White House council on trade. Navarro's advancement as a political adviser follows several failed attempts at winning political office.
In 1992, Navarro ran an independent campaign for mayor in San Diego, losing with 48% of the vote to the Republican candidate. His campaign’s emphasis was on restricting development and stemmed from his work as leader of a group called Prevent Los Angelization Now!
His campaign chairman was a fellow professor, Peter Andersen, who says Navarro was an economic conservative but to the left of the Democratic Party on environmental issues.
“I liked his indomitable spirit in terms of taking on the establishment, taking on developers,” Andersen said. “He never shrunk at all from that path.”
It was Andersen who said that Navarro could be “a real jerk to people.”
“Never flinches, smart, egotistical, self-centered, he goes forward unfettered when he’s right. Narcissistic. All of those things I would say about Peter,” Andersen said. “I loved him, but I didn’t like him.”
In ensuing years, Navarro narrowly lost races for San Diego City Council and county supervisor. In 1996, he ran as a Democratic candidate for a San Diego-based congressional seat and even landed a small speaking role at the Democratic National Convention.
Navarro ended up losing by double-digit percentage points. Lisa Ross, who worked for Navarro as the communications director in the congressional race, said: “the more exposure people had to Peter, the more they got to dislike him.”
But being liked is not a prerequisite for being an adviser to Trump.
“The thing is with Peter, he can bully his way around,” Ross said. “I think that may be the reason Trump appointed him to this thing.”