Meet the Man Behind Trump's Trade War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he has the president’s ear — and is in the running to fill Gary Cohn’s shoes.
By Molly Fosco
A smiling Peter Navarro stands camera-ready in a freshly starched blue dress shirt and red power tie. He’s been asked to join Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball to discuss then–presidential nominee Donald Trump’s tax plan. Matthews doesn’t quite make it through his introduction before Navarro starts sputtering, barely able to contain himself. He cuts off the talk show host, ignoring his tax question, and insists on addressing Trump’s other economic policies, including the benefit of increased tariffs. He’s immediately reprimanded by Matthews for veering off topic — “You do this every time, Peter!” — and a classic cable news debate erupts.
That was 2016, but Navarro, 68, hasn’t changed his trade policies, or his bullish demeanor. In fact, it appears this economist — widely viewed as Trump’s most powerful trade adviser — has been lamenting the evils of Chinese imports to the president for the past 18 months. Trump recently announced his plans for tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, prompting his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to announce his resignation. The Tuesday announcement by Cohn, who was seen as a voice restraining the president’s aggressive anti-trade stance, ignited fear on Wall Street and caused Dow futures to fall 300 points. Trump has never been shy about his intention to increase tariffs, but as one of the only U.S. economists that agree with him, Navarro is getting the blame.
Our trading partners have been playing us for fools. They will respect Donald Trump for standing up for Americans against unfair trade practices.
“Navarro’s whole thing has been ‘the evil Chinese are eating us for lunch,’ and that’s been attractive to Trump,” says Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank on international affairs. Trump and Navarro aren’t necessarily wrong about China’s threat, Manning adds, but they’ve taken it too far. “The problem is, he [Navarro] has taken what’s essentially a China problem and extrapolated it onto the whole global trade system, which makes no sense.”
After earning a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, Navarro became a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s business school in 1989. He began his political career soon after, initially spurred by a belief in “the need for government intervention in the presence of a market failure,” he wrote in his 1998 memoir San Diego Confidential. In the ’90s, he ran for mayor of San Diego, city council (twice), the county board of supervisors and Congress, all as a Democrat — never winning a race. He was pro–abortion rights, favored gay rights and cared about the environment, but he was also combative and self-important. “He’s not quite as prickly as Trump, but he has the same ego issues,” Larry Remer, a political consultant who worked on three of Navarro’s campaigns, told The Washington Post.
Navarro doesn’t fall cleanly on either side of the aisle, describing himself as “a Reagan Democrat and a Trump Democrat abandoned by my party.” But he and Trump have found some trade support on the left from labor unions. The AFL-CIO labor coalition and others have long fought for bipartisan support to change trade policies they see as too lenient on China’s currency control. “Working people need trade policies that support good jobs at home and boost sustainable development abroad,” the AFL-CIO website states.
After a decade of failed attempts to seek elected office, Navarro turned to writing books on investing, many centered on a “get rich quick” theme. He also wrote a series about China’s threat to the U.S., which drew Trump’s attention. In 2011, Trump told Xinhua, China’s government news agency, that Navarro’s book The Coming China Wars was one of his favorites. During the 2016 presidential campaign, it was another Navarro title, Death by China, that caught Jared Kushner’s eye. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser had been tasked with researching talking points on China. When he came across Navarro’s book on Amazon, he cold-called him. Navarro joined the Trump campaign soon after.
Since then, Navarro has been working hard to gain a foothold in Washington. He’s hated by free trade enthusiasts, who suspect he wants to undo the entire global supply chain. Their suspicion may be warranted. Last year the Financial Times reported: “Navarro said one of the [Trump] administration’s trade priorities was unwinding and repatriating the international supply chains on which many U.S. multinational companies rely.”
“That tells you how much he doesn’t understand economics,” Manning puts it bluntly. “We have global supply chains because that’s the best way American corporations can be globally competitive.” Since Trump’s announcement on Tuesday to boost tariffs, Navarro has also made fast enemies abroad. Canada’s Globe and Mail called him “Ottawa’s worst nightmare.” Europe is weighing retaliatory tariffs on American products such as motorcycles, blue jeans and whiskey. But Navarro is unlikely to be fazed. “Our trading partners have been playing us for fools,” he told OZY in 2016. “They will respect Donald Trump for standing up for Americans against unfair trade practices.”
Shunned by more traditional Republicans, Navarro appears to be finding a measure of support from the alt-right. Breitbart News is painting him as the good guy for keeping Trump loyal to his campaign promises. He appeared on Breitbart’s radio show over the weekend, reiterating that tariffs are the only way to save American steel.
If nothing else, Navarro is persistent. In true House of Cards fashion, he’s known for slinking around the West Wing at night, hoping for a moment alone with the president to discuss trade, Politico reported. His furtiveness seems to be paying off. After more than a year of being sidelined in favor of Republican heavyweights, Navarro is rising through the ranks. Trump is in the process of promoting him from “deputy assistant” to “assistant to the president.”
If Navarro’s global trade war has arrived at last, the combative economist is ready for the fight.