clock menu more-arrow no yes

Trump’s most hardcore America First trade adviser is on the brink of getting a lot more power

Peter Navarro, an anti-China obsessive, could be promoted to Trump’s top economic adviser.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, resigned Tuesday in what was widely viewed as a protest against the president’s plan to impose huge tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the US.

Now it appears that the prickly America First advocate who played a crucial role in driving Cohn to quit could, in fact, be taking his old position: Trump administration officials are reportedly considering White House trade adviser Peter Navarro as one of the leading candidates to head the National Economic Council (NEC).

If Navarro is chosen, it would be an extraordinary turn of events for the eccentric economist. In the earlier days of the administration, Navarro played a significant role in encouraging Trump’s skepticism of free trade on issues ranging from NAFTA to how the US does business with China. But in September, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly folded Navarro’s once-independent office under Cohn’s.

The move was widely interpreted as a demotion, and it appeared at that time that Navarro’s more peculiar views on international economics and his domineering personality had ultimately made him an outsider.

But Navarro has had a comeback. He went head to head with Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive and free trade supporter, in fighting fiercely for steel and aluminum tariffs — and he won. Navarro, along with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, reportedly helped Trump craft the tariff policy in secret. When Trump made the announcement on tariffs last week, Cohn was blindsided.

Trump’s tariff announcement and Cohn’s subsequent departure represent a kind of double victory for Navarro, as well as others in the White House advocating for erecting big trade barriers around the US economy.

The absence of Cohn’s dissenting voice means Navarro and his allies should have more sway when encouraging Trump to enact more aggressively protectionist policies on the big trade issues of the day. This includes punishing China for its intellectual property theft with tariffs, renegotiating NAFTA, and changing the free trade agreement between the US and South Korea.

“Clearly, the nationalist voices are stronger in the Trump White House than they’ve ever been before,” Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “There’s no particularly effective counter to the triumvirate of Ross, Navarro, and [US Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer.”

If Navarro does get promoted to head the NEC, which coordinates economic policymaking across the entire federal government, that power will be amplified further. He will have an unrivaled ability to set the agenda for the kinds of policies the president considers putting in place.

And given Navarro’s past behavior, there’s good reason to think he could use his power as a gatekeeper to shut out anyone who disagrees with him.

Navarro’s status in the White House has changed again and again

Navarro’s time in Trumpworld has been quite a roller coaster ride.

At first, the former University of California professor looked primed to become something of a Trump whisperer. Navarro and Trump first began corresponding in 2011, after Navarro learned that Trump was apparently a fan of his book about how China’s rise was a threat to the world.

Trump went on to give Navarro’s 2012 documentary, Death by China, a big public endorsement. In that polemical film, based on the book he wrote of the same title, Navarro argues in racially tinged language that China is bent on global domination and is a threat to the US akin to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Trump and Navarro share similar hardline views on trade, and people close to Navarro have described them as similar in temperament as well. “They’re two peas in the pod, I’m telling you,” Beckie Mann, who managed Navarro’s unsuccessful bid for mayor of San Diego in 1992, told Politico magazine last year.

Navarro joined Trump’s presidential campaign and helped form his platform on trade. After Trump became president, he created a new office in the White House specifically for Navarro — the White House National Trade Council.

In the first several months of the administration, Navarro quickly developed a reputation as an aggressive debater and played a substantial role in trade policy discussions. He defended Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in his first few days in office and almost convinced Trump to pull out of NAFTA.

Trump trusted Navarro so much that when he entered trade negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April, the president insisted that Navarro be by his side.

Navarro was not only a hardliner on trade policy — he was also somebody so eager to develop an intimate relationship with the president that he bypassed standard protocols. He was known to lurk in the West Wing on nights and weekends in an apparent attempt to get more one-on-one time with Trump.

That behavior ended up backfiring. Last fall, Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, started controlling advisers’ access to Trump and reined in Navarro by folding his office under NEC Director Gary Cohn’s. At one point, Navarro was also told to copy Cohn on all emails. Cohn was Navarro’s ideological archrival in the administration, and it looked like Navarro had fallen from the president’s favor.

But then things took yet another turn. Recent turnover in the White House — especially the February resignation of staff secretary Rob Porter, who managed Navarro — upset the regular policymaking process. Navarro took advantage of the chaos and worked with Ross to cobble together tariff policy, unbeknownst to other advisers.

And after Trump announced on March 1 that he plans to impose sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, Navarro became the face of that policy. He spent the following weekend on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, championing the move as a boon for American workers.

Now White House officials say Navarro is being considered alongside conservative commentator Larry Kudlow as one of the top two candidates for director of the NEC. It’s a bit strange that those two names have been highlighted, since Kudlow is a committed supporter of free trade and holds far more conventionally conservative views on economics than Navarro.

“If he picks Kudlow, it says to me that Trump is still trying to walk some kind of line between his own nationalist convictions and the free trade beliefs of the Republican majority in Congress. If he picks Navarro, he has gone full protectionist,” Alden, the Council on Foreign Relations expert, says.

Navarro would be a highly unusual pick for NEC director

Analysts say that Navarro would be a tradition-breaking choice for director of the National Economic Council. There are a couple of reasons why.

First, it’s important to know that the NEC is responsible for managing the flow of all economic decision-making within the government. It’s an advisory body that helps coordinate input from agencies across the government on issues ranging from financial markets to unemployment to taxes to infrastructure. The director of the NEC is supposed to hold meetings and issue memos to form some kind of synthesis out of the often conflicting opinions of various advisers.

Phil Levy, a former senior official on President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, told me he thinks Navarro is “uniquely poorly suited” to that type of job. “[Navarro] is more of a person who has very strong views and will do what it takes to get those views across,” Levy said.

Levy and other analysts point to the way the steel and aluminum tariffs were rolled out, with Navarro deliberately bypassing policymaking protocol to make sure he beat his opponents.

“You want a consensus-builder in that position. You want someone who can run a meeting so that everyone feels like they’ve been listened to — and not somebody running their own agenda,” Wendy Cutler, a 30-year veteran trade negotiator for the US government, told me.

The NEC director has huge power to determine what’s a priority and what kinds of opinions get more or less play with the president. Because the job has such a sweeping mandate, it’s also crucial for the NEC director to be able to hire good deputies with different realms of expertise and connections to other parts of government. Here, too, Navarro could be problematic.

Morale is already low at the NEC, and Cohn’s departure has made it worse, with several senior officials considering resigning in the near future. Reports indicate that if Navarro clinched the job as director, he could possibly trigger a mass exodus there. “No one on this NEC will work for that guy,” an NEC official told Politico.

Analysts say that Navarro’s reputation as a fringe economic thinker and an overbearing personality could not only cause others to leave but will make it harder for him to hire replacements. Even if he decides to try to become more restrained in his job as NEC director, he’s already done some irreversible damage with the way he’s conducted himself in the White House so far.

If Navarro took the NEC position, it could also alienate Republican lawmakers and widen the rift between the president and his party that’s developed in the past week over tariffs. “I think he’s wrong on a lot of things,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told the Associated Press.

Republicans have mobilized aggressively against the steel and aluminum tariffs that Navarro pushed so hard for. More than 100 House Republicans signed a letter Wednesday calling for Trump to reconsider implementing his tariffs. And there’s no doubt they’re concerned with what agenda Navarro will push in the White House in the coming months, whether he remains a trade adviser or becomes the NEC director.

Analysts say Navarro’s ascent could mean an increase in the use of tariffs to protect US industries from foreign competition and a harder line in NAFTA negotiations. But the biggest issue Navarro may have an impact on is how the president responds to the conclusion of an investigation into China’s intellectual property theft from American businesses.

Navarro holds extremely hardline views on China and could encourage the president to spark a trade war with the country, which has the second-largest economy in the world.

Trump is wildly unpredictable and inconsistent on most policy issues. But taking a hard line on trade is one of the only policy opinions he has remained consistent on for decades. An empowered Navarro, and the absence of dissenting voices in the White House, could make Trump feel more self-assured than ever about ushering the US into a new era of protectionism.