WASHINGTON (AP) — In the squabbling Trump White House, no insider is ever above rebuke and no one blacklisted beyond redemption. Trade adviser Peter Navarro, once barred from sending private emails and spotted skulking in West Wing hallways, has emerged from the chaos ascendant.
With his chief ideological rival, Gary Cohn, now headed for the exit, Navarro and his protectionist trade policies are taking center stage as President Donald Trump prepares to impose the steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that Navarro has long championed.
Navarro, a 68-year-old former economics professor whose ideas were once considered well outside the mainstream, joined the Trump campaign in 2016 after one of his books on China happened to catch the eye of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner during an internet search.
From the presidential campaign, Navarro made the leap to the new administration to head a new White House National Trade Council. But he was quickly sidelined by chief of staff John Kelly and closely managed by former staff secretary Rob Porter.
As alliances shifted and staffers departed, though, Navarro made his move, encouraging Trump to embrace a plan that many economists, lawmakers and White House aides warn could lead to a trade war and imperil U.S. economic gains. Trump signed a pair of proclamations Thursday imposing tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum.
The president and the combative Navarro share the same hard-line views on trade that were a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign. For decades, both men have accused China of unfair trade practices that have displaced American workers and hobbled the U.S. manufacturing base.
“Peter speaks the same language as Trump does on these issues,” said Stephen Moore, a former Trump campaign adviser who is now a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “He and Trump agree on an America First policy when it comes to trade and other issues, so he has emerged as a policy force in this administration.”
Like Stephen Miller on immigration, Navarro has now become the face of Trump’s trade plan. In interviews since Trump’s surprise promise to impose the sweeping tariffs, Navarro has forcefully defended his boss and minimized any potential negative impact on the U.S.
“There’s negligible-to-nothing effects,” he said dismissively on CBS, later accusing the media of hyping prospects of a trade war.
Navarro had limited contact with Trump world until early in the campaign, when Kushner was drawn to his book, “Death by China,” while researching China policy. Kushner reached out and Navarro quickly became an economic adviser.
Despite his credentials as a Harvard Ph.D. and former professor at the University of California, Irvine, Navarro was less an academic focused on research than a master of controversy writing books such as “The Coming China Wars.” He has professed views that go further even than academic peers who see China’s emergence in the global economy as hurting many U.S. workers.
“Trump has unconventional views on many issues. And here was an economist of some acclaim who was validating those positions,” Moore said.
Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which represents steel makers, has known Navarro for more than a decade. He described Navarro as “someone who certainly speaks his mind and is not afraid to present ideas and data that are contrarian. And I think way more often than not, he makes a very persuasive case.”
Persuasive to like-minded Trump, perhaps, but not to many free-trade-loving Republicans.
“I think he’s wrong on a lot of things,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, who opposes the tariffs.
Under Trump’s plan, Canada and Mexico could be exempted from the tariffs based on the outcome of talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a move that could soften the tariff blow.
But Navarro is still riding high.
He’s been telling friends that he’s seeking Cohn’s National Economic Council director title, according to a person close to the White House who has spoken to Navarro — a move that could spark an exodus of Cohn allies, another person familiar with the thinking of other White House officials said.
Early in Trump’s term, Navarro at first was outmaneuvered by Cohn, the Goldman Sachs president-turned-Trump economic adviser.
Cohn-Navarro discussions sometimes turned into shouting matches, occasionally in front of Trump.
Navarro, excluded from Trump’s trip to Asia last fall, was sometimes seen walking the West Wing halls at night. In an especially personal blow, he was required to copy in Cohn on all his emails after being accused of trying to circumvent West Wing processes, according to two people familiar with the policy. They spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration roles.
The White House regimen included a weekly trade policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room where aides with opposing views could talk through ideas to ensure recommendations brought to the president were fully vetted and legally sound. When Porter left, said one of the people, the process broke down and Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made their move.
Asked on Fox whether he’d conducted “guerrilla warfare,” sneaking around the West Wing and trying to making an end-run around staffers, Navarro dismissed the narrative as a “cheap shot” spread by “all sorts of malicious” leakers.
Others said Navarro had bided his time, keeping his head down, persistently building his case. He waited as tariff decision deadlines set by Ross ticked closer, and the White House turned its attention back to trade after deciding to table the divisive issue while it worked on health care and taxes.
“For a long time, there were a lot of long knives out to get him,” said Paul, who served as a member of the White House Manufacturing Jobs Initiative before resigning last summer.
In the end though, said Paul, “I think it’s pretty clear that the president is siding with the economic nationalists.”
Associated Press writers Josh Boak, Catherine Lucey, Zeke Miller and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj.