Peter Navarro, one of the White House’s top trade advisers, is widely viewed throughout the West Wing and Capitol Hill as a prickly personality with extreme policy ideas.
But he has nonetheless emerged as an influential force in the White House who appeals to President Donald Trump’s protectionist impulses.
Navarro has earned a reputation for stalking the halls of the West Wing at night and on the weekends to find a moment to slip into the Oval Office to privately discuss trade with the president, according to one White House official and a close adviser to the administration. It’s his way of maintaining influence through proximity.
His clout, dating back to the campaign, has informed the president’s thinking on everything from NAFTA to new lumber tariffs to potential trade restrictions on steel and aluminum. A former economics professor at the University of California-Irvine who unsuccessfully ran for office four times, Navarro has a well-established reputation as an academic with hardline views on the threat that China poses to the U.S.
He has since pulled the president so far right on trade that more moderate aides worry his proposals could launch a global trade war if Trump takes them too seriously, according to a dozen interviews with White House officials, close advisers, and Republican congressional aides.
“The president agrees with lots of Peter’s writings on the effects of trade,” said Steve Moore, a senior economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who informally advised the Trump campaign on economic issues. “So far, in a lot of ways, Navarro’s opinion and views have really prevailed especially with some of the saber-rattling on steel, aluminum, and lumber tariffs.”
Yet now, Navarro finds himself at a pivotal moment in his brief White House tenure. Trump and his team are in the throes of a wide-ranging debate on trade that could help define the president’s approach to the issue for the rest of his time in office. How that shapes up will reveal as much about the president’s policy leanings as it does about Navarro’s effectiveness as a one-man, anti-China trade warrior, who sometimes finds himself aligned with Steve Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist, and Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary.
Navarro himself says that the president’s trade agenda is already “absolutely” clear, even though trade experts say it’s veered between more protectionist impulses and a global, free trade stance. In an interview in his office, Navarro said that the president began instituting that agenda by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after the inauguration.
"TPP was the single most important action in the last two decades on trade, and the president did it on Day Three — in that picture over there on the floor, with his complete adviser team united behind him,” Navarro said, pointing to a photograph on his office floor. “That was no easy lift. That agreement would have devastated what was left of our manufacturing and defense industrial base.”
White House aides said Navarro has clashed with most of Trump’s senior staff at one time or another. Though he is often philosophically aligned with Bannon, and to a lesser extent Ross, aides said they have sometimes groused about his no-holds-barred tactics, which one aide compared to “guerilla warfare.”
But Navarro said he does not need to lurk around the West Wing to get an audience with the president. "I’m in the Oval only when called," he said.
Trump gets advice on trade from an array of advisers with diverging views, including U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. The advisers have been jockeying for influence for months, with Ross, Navarro and Lighthizer fighting to protect their central role in the process.
Navarro’s influence has dimmed a bit since the campaign, where he was often the only voice in the room on trade. Now, more than a dozen senior administration officials often attend the White House’s regular trade meetings, which have been taking place behind the scenes for months, according to a senior administration official.
Navarro works out of a large office filled with trade to-do lists down a long, quiet hallway in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, about half-a-city block from the Oval Office. Although he technically runs the National Trade Council and Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, serving as a liaison between the White House and Commerce, he only has two staffers. One of them, Alexander Gray, worked on defense issues as a former member of the presidential transition team.
In December 2016, Trump announced that Navarro would lead a new White House National Trade Council. A statement announcing the new council suggested it would have the same level of stature as other powerful policy offices in the White House like the Domestic Policy Council and National Economic Council. But the president later changed course, issuing an April executive order establishing the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, which is not an official policy council in the White House.
The change was seen by some in the White House as a demotion for Navarro, though others said the trade office is meant to give Navarro a perch from which to exert influence. While the National Trade Council still exists, one White House aide said it’s largely been folded into the Office of Trade and Manufacturing policy.
Like any White House where real estate, resources, and staffers confer stature, two aides say Navarro’s lean operation can hinder him, especially compared with the staffing might of the Domestic Policy Council or Gary Cohn’s 30-person-strong National Economic Council.
His early days as a White House official were also bumpy – and were it not for his personal relationship with the president, other advisers likely would have sidelined him entirely.
In one case, Navarro offended Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee when he met them to talk trade. In his presentation early this year, he lectured and talked down to the lawmakers without allowing for input or consultation, according to two congressional aides present in the meeting and an administration official briefed on it. “I’m not sure if he was oblivious that many in the room voted for these trade agreements and therefore, completely disagreed with his entire premise, or if he fully understood that and didn’t care,” said one of the Republican congressional aides.
Both his dictatorial style, as another aide called it, and the policy substance irritated members.
Navarro also clashed early on with Kenneth Juster, the former deputy director of the National Economic Council under Cohn and deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs. Their bickering – along with broader tensions between Juster and other members of the administration – contributed to the decision to nominate Juster as U.S. ambassador to India.
Now Juster has been replaced on the NEC with another Cohn ally and former Senate Finance Committee staffer, Everett Eissenstat. He does not share Navarro’s protectionist views but has much deeper relationships around Washington that should shield him politically, if Navarro tries to undermine him or they clash, according to one Republican trade expert.
Navarro first entered into the Trump 2016 campaign vis-à-vis Jared Kushner, though he and Trump were familiar with one another’s work dating back to 2011. As one of the only advisers on the campaign and transition with academic credentials, Navarro’s experience helped him build clout in the White House, where aides value loyalty.
But Navarro’s policy stances have sometimes alienated him from other White House aides. He vigorously advocated for the president to pull out of NAFTA, the 1994 agreement that knocked down trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Trump almost did until other White House advisers learned of the plan and enlisted foreign leaders, businesses, and senior lawmakers to lobby the president to remain in the agreement, arguing that leaving would hurt the economy and the supply chain.
Instead, Trump said he would re-negotiate NAFTA, a blow to Navarro’s trade vision. Navarro says that Trump still has the option to pull out of NAFTA, if the U.S. trade representative cannot, in the end, negotiate a good deal for the country.
More recently, Navarro has scored several policy wins. In late April, the administration announced that it planned to impose tariffs on softwood lumber imports from Canada. The United States and Canada have been feuding about softwood lumber for decades, and Trump’s decision to hit Canada with tariffs infuriated the country’s leaders. Navarro declined to comment on his role in it.
Behind the scenes, Navarro has also been pushing for a 25-percent across-the-board tariff on steel imports from certain countries like China, according to two administration officials. Trade experts worry that such a dramatic move would upend global trade practices and cause countries to retaliate, potentially leading to a trade war. The steel tariff discussion that has pitted Navarro, Bannon, and Ross against a bevy of White House advisers including Cohn.
“The steel issue is not in any way about China per se. It is simply about the fact that our domestic steel mills are under sustained attack from imports from many different countries, raising the very real danger of losing additional steel mills and capacity that we need for our economic and national security needs,” Navarro said.
White House officials say the president is leaning toward a middle-ground approach on steel imports, but they caution that a final decision hasn’t been made.
Yet this mixed record of success on trade and his reputation as the administration’s nutty professor has not deterred Navarro. White House sources say Navarro is pushing nearly two dozen different proposals on trade and manufacturing behind the scenes. And Navarro isn’t afraid to name drop the president or Ross in meetings to try to move along his agenda with lower-level staffers who may not completely understand the White House’s hierarchy.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the White House who pushes harder for things, who doesn’t give up on any idea or draft policy even when faced with hurdles or daunting challenges,” one administration official said.