WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus claimed thousands more lives last week, a little known Trump administration official stepped into the spotlight, giving Americans a glimpse into the turmoil behind the scenes as the White House battles the crisis.
Peter Navarro, a 70-year-old economist who’s spent years darkly warning of the dangers of Chinese economic hegemony, recently leapt headfirst from his previous portfolio of tackling trade issues into the White House’s at times chaotic and overdue efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.
Late last month, President Trump tapped Navarro to coordinate use of the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to assist, prod, and even compel US industries to make masks, respirators, gowns, and other protective equipment that hospitals say they desperately need to treat coronavirus patients. But Navarro has attracted more attention for loudly siding with Trump in a behind-the-scenes battle with the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, over an experimental and still unproven treatment for coronavirus called hydroxychloroquine.
“My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist,” Navarro said in a boisterous CNN interview, when asked last week why Americans should take his advice on the effects of the anti-malaria drug over Fauci’s. “I have a PhD and I understand how to read statistical studies.”
Fauci has urged caution on hydroxychloroquine, while Trump and Navarro have taken a more optimistic note on the trials that are underway. (One such trial was recently halted altogether after patients taking a higher dose of the drug started displaying irregular heart rates.) Navarro’s critics blasted his defense of the treatment as unscientific and potentially dangerous, and suggested he embodied an overall disregard for science emanating from Trump and some of his top aides. On Sunday, Trump shared a Tweet critical of the doctor with the hashtag #FireFauci, further escalating tensions inside the administration.
Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, tweeted that she understood why Trump liked Navarro so much. “Both spread dangerous misinformation not based on fact and science during a pandemic. Birds of a feather flock together,” she wrote.
A pugilistic China trade critic and academic might not seem the most obvious choice to help battle a pandemic, but in the ad-hoc world of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, it’s not that unusual. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is running a “shadow” response to the crisis separate from the official task force run by Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump has floated forming a separate group to focus on the economic recovery.
The result, critics charge, is a halting and patchwork response that’s not up to the challenge of the coronavirus outbreak, which experts say won’t be fully contained until a vaccine is developed in a year or more. Democratic lawmakers sharply question Navarro and Trump’s sparing use of Defense Production Act’s power to turbocharge US industry in order to meet the epic medical supply challenge the coronavirus poses, and wonder why the administration hasn’t laid out clear targets for how many masks and other equipment it wants to produce domestically for the lengthy battle ahead.
The national stockpile of crucial medical gear, including masks, respirators, and some medications, has been drained bare, after the government distributed everything in its possession in the face of overwhelming demand from states, according to the Associated Press. Governors are now forming consortiums to buy supplies together, to avoid driving up prices by bidding against each other.
Acknowledging the enormity of that challenge, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called Navarro “woefully unqualified” for the job in a letter to Trump earlier this month, imploring him to tap a military officer trained in managing logistics and supply chains instead.
Global supply chain experts also questioned Navarro’s bona fides, stressing that personal connections and a diplomatic touch are often needed to secure materials from foreign countries that are necessary in order to manufacture here in the United States.
“A head of supply chain from Walmart or Procter and Gamble or wherever, they’d do 100 times better than Navarro,” said Yossi Sheffi, an MIT professor who specializes in global supply chains. “You need to understand how an international supply chain works. You need personal connections in ports.”
Navarro defended himself from his critics in a statement to the Globe.
“I’m just a soldier in this war and minute by minute, I’m just focused on the mission of defending the American people by providing them the weapons they need to fight, which in this war are not bullets but rather weapons like masks and ventilators and hydroxychloroquine,” he said. “Let historians be my judge — not partisan critics."
But Navarro has at least one prominent Democratic fan. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he’s found Navarro to be a key ally in the city’s time of crisis, and praised him for quickly resolving an issue with a Swedish company that needed the US government’s help in order to fulfill New York’s order for 500 ventilators.
“I’ve been very critical of the administration, I think they’ve been very late to the dance on the Defense Production Act, but there’s a real place in the world for people who have the ability to just make things happen,” de Blasio said. “Peter’s been very, very responsive.”
“Diplomatic” is not a word that gets thrown around a lot about Navarro, even by his allies. But “persistent” is another matter. He ran for office five different times in San Diego starting in the 1990s, when he was an environmentalist Democrat not yet interested in China, and was undeterred by defeat.
“He was really somebody that may have had good ideas but was impossible to be around, treated people awfully, and treated his opponents worse and would have been a disaster if he had had to build a coalition,” said Larry Remer, a Democratic strategist who worked for Navarro on two of his races, including a 1996 congressional run.
After joining the Trump White House as a trade adviser, Navarro bided his time after he was sidelined by former chief of staff John Kelly and forced to toil under the president’s former top economic adviser Gary Cohn, who vehemently opposed almost all of Navarro’s thinking on trade. He eventually regained Trump’s ear when the president grew frustrated with opposition to his plan to levy steep tariffs on China. Cohn is now out, the tariffs went into effect, and Navarro was promoted to assistant to the president.
“Typically if someone gets pushed out then they disappear,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign aide. “But Peter’s someone who [didn’t]. That’s how President Trump knows he’s in it for the right reasons.”
Navarro wrote memos as early as January grimly warning that the United States needed to prepare for the onslaught of the coronavirus, prophesying that it could infect millions of Americans and about the need for greater numbers of protective equipment. But Trump claims he never read Navarro’s warnings, and Navarro has taken a relentlessly upbeat tone about the response in subsequent television appearances, often lavishing praise on the president.
“He has a greater sense of the chess board than anyone,” Navarro said of Trump last week on Fox News. “I think he will go down as the greatest president in modern history.”
On Sunday, he sparred with an interviewer on “60 Minutes,” claiming the news show also never anticipated a global pandemic. “Show me that episode and then you’ll have some credence in terms of attacking the Trump administration for not being prepared,” he said. (The show did air such episodes, in 2009 during the swine flu, and in 2005 during the avian flu.)
Navarro’s staying power is helped by him siding with Trump on issues like hydroxychloroquine and bashing the press, but it’s also due to Trump and Navarro sharing a key interest — the conviction that the United States is getting screwed over by bad trade deals in general, and by China specifically.
“For many years, China has ripped off the United States,” Trump told reporters in a coronavirus briefing on Friday. “And then I came along.”
Navarro’s views on China are even more pronounced. The trailer for a film he made in 2012, “Death by China,” features a “made in China” knife plunging into an American flag, with blood splattering all around, while voices in the background warn of the country’s militarization and economic growth. And while Trump has mostly stopped calling COVID-19 the “China virus,” following complaints from the Chinese government and others, Navarro still uses the term.
Navarro told the Globe he hopes the crisis will be a “wake-up call” to America to “bring its pharmaceutical and medical equipment supply chains home.”
This has been a passion of his for more than a decade, as he’s warned about the negative effects of trade deficits in general — in the face of criticism from many economists who see his beliefs as extreme — and dependency on foreign nations to make critical goods.
“Navarro’s ultimate goal is to make sure that the United States is as self-sufficient and non-reliant on foreign nations as possible,” said Miller. “So this is really his moment, this is his time, and these are things he’s been preaching about for years.”
But for now, that moment must wait, as his role often involves trying to speed the import of supplies and parts from China and other nations. “My only mission during this crisis is to make sure the people in America have everything they need to defend themselves and their loved ones from the invisible enemy known as the China virus," Navarro said.
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.