You are forgiven if, until recent days, you had forgotten that President Donald Trump’s cabinet includes the UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business professor emeritus in Economics/Public Policy.
For Peter Navarro, it was not for lack of trying that prevented the 68-year-old from becoming a household name by now. We’ll get to the reasons for that in a bit.
First, let’s revisit Navarro’s victory lap on the cable news speedway over the past six days, when the protectionist professor was credited with being the bug in Trump’s ear before the announcement of U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
There are many critics of the tariffs, some of whom are not only Republicans but members of the same Trump administration. Or ex-members, such as Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs, who had been Trump’s top economic adviser before resigning Tuesday over his differences with the president on trade.
That leaves an opening for Navarro, who spent a good portion of his recent media appearances downplaying any harm from U.S.-imposed tariffs to the U.S. economy. For instance, while speaking with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo, Navarro estimated the tariffs would result in only a one-cent rise in the price of a six-pack of beer and $45 more per passenger car.
When asked about possible retaliation from countries slapped with tariffs, Navarro sounded much like his boss. “This whole idea that there’s a big downstream effect—it’s just part of the fake news that’s going to be put out to oppose these tariffs,” he told the Mornings with Maria host. “A penny for a six pack of beer—that’s worth it to put Americans back to work in two industries that we need.”
These heady times for Navarro, like the professor’s nailed landing on the national stage, came out of nowhere.
He ran as a pro-environment, pro-slow-growth Democrat for public offices in San Diego, and even led in the polls going into the last weekend of his first race, for mayor. After his opponent Susan Golding ran three negative ads, Navarro responded with one about her ex-husband having been convicted of laundering illegal drug money. In a televised debate late in the race, Navarro tore into Golding again, and she tearfully responded that the attacks on her family were unfair. Navarro’s accusation that Golding’s reaction seemed rehearsed did not serve him well. She won, and Navarro later went on to lose races for city council in 1993, county supervisor in 1994 and Congress in 1996, when he was billed as the “Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears the Most!”
As an academic, Navarro was first known for writing investor advice books, such as 2001’s If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks: The Investor’s Guide to Profiting From News and Other Market-Moving Events. He became more prominent with the books he wrote about China’s rise as an economic superpower. In The Coming China Wars (2006), the author writes, “Every American needs to be aware of the threat China poses to their well-being.”
Navarro’s 2011 follow-up (with co-author Greg Autry) was Death by China, which argues a U.S.-China war has moved beyond the factory floor to the virtual world, with Chinese hackers relentlessly targeting American defense sites and key businesses.
He completed a trilogy with 2015’s Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World, which warns that a real war between the U.S. and China is a strong possibility. After stating the reasons why this is so, Navarro matches the two sides against one another militarily–and cites factors that may hinder U.S. chances for ultimate victory.
I still recall the NPR interviews with Navarro, first to herald Death by China‘s arrival in book stores (remember those?) and then when the same tome was spun into a documentary narrated by Martin Sheen. Those had me transferring feelings of pride to Anteaters for UCI being put on the national map.
If we only knew what was to come.
Here is how the legend goes: As Trump was trying to separate his campaign from a laundry list of entrenched Republican politicians, he told his son-in-law Jared Kushner to do some research so the upstart candidate could speak more substantially about China. According to a Vanity Fair story by Washington Post reporter Sarah Ellison, Kushner went to Amazon and found the title Death by China. Kushner then called Navarro, who agreed to become the campaign’s sole economic adviser weeks before he ever met Trump.
At that time, and through to Navarro’s appointment in the early days of the administration as deputy director of the White House’s newly created Trade and Manufacturing Policy office, the professor was lambasted–and not just by the usual Trump bashers. The National Review called Navarro “nutty,” and Forbes claimed he “didn’t know Econ 101 about trade.”
In a 2016 profile, the New Yorker‘s Adam Davidson wrote, “Navarro’s views on trade and China are so radical … that, even with his assistance, I was unable to find another economist who fully agrees with them.”
His treatment by those in the inner Trump circle wasn’t much better … and vice versa. Navarro did have some early successes, getting the president to keep his campaign promises to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate NAFTA, but the academic’s brash style had him clashing with just about every White House senior staffer, Politico reported last summer. That piece portrayed Navarro as frequently stalking the West Wing at night and on weekends for chances to slip into the Oval Office to talk trade with the president. (I imagine him climbing over Omarosa to get there.)
Last fall, Navarro was effectively demoted by Chief of Staff John Kelly, whose reshuffling of the White House economics team made Cohn the protectionist professor’s new superior. The New York Times reported that Navarro soon became a missing man on invite lists for high-level trade meetings as well as Trump’s China trip. Crouching tiger, meet your hidden dragon.
Trump’s then-staff secretary Rob Porter is claimed by the Washington Post to have kept Navarro’s work from reaching the president, while also implying that Porter’s departure after domestic violence allegations helped Navarro recapture that orange ear.
The Post reports that on Feb. 12, Trump summoned Navarro to the Oval Office to ask why the administration’s trade policy was not more aggressive. The president then called Kelly and had Navarro’s office moved out from under Cohn and restored to independence. As Navarro was being formally promoted from “deputy assistant” to “assistant to the president,” which would have given him the same footing as Cohn had the latter not resigned, Trump announced the tariffs, according to the Post.
But Trump’s announcement last week (and doubling down on Monday) once again has Navarro being shaded. “In the stiff-headed Navarro world view, free-trade talk is globaloney,” states the Globe and Mail, Canada’s most widely read newspaper. “Canadian officials have long shuddered at the nativist creed of the wiry and abrasive 68-year-old. And with good reason.”
Even those in lock step with Trump are piling on. Cohn had been trying to get Trump to reconsider the tariffs before submitting his resignation, even arranging for a meeting with top American business executives who fear the move is disastrous. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately warned senior trade officials on Tuesday that the tariffs could endanger the U.S. national security relationship with allies, the Post reports.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called on the president to reconsider the tariffs and even suggested legislation to block them. It’s small wonder considering Harley-Davidson, whose Milwaukee headquarters are within the Wisconsin Republican’s district, has been threatened with retaliatory tariffs. “We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance with this plan,” explained Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
“I totally disagreed with that one staffer down there who is, in my opinion, misleading the president,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the Finance Committee, told reporters. “Navarro should know better.”
At least Breitbart News has Navarro’s back, applauding him for helping Trump stick with his campaign promises. It was to that right-wing outlet, which until recently had as its chairman Navarro’s former West Wing mate Steve Bannon, that the protectionist professor gave F’s to his critics, attacking the “hair on fire” reaction to the tariffs as the “biggest bunch of horse-puckey that you can imagine.”
I can imagine there will be more horse-puckey to come.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.