And the aggressive policy adviser to an equally aggressive chief executive is throwing his newfound weight around, reportedly clashing with the widely popular Anthony Fauci, Washington’s top infectious disease coordinator, about a malaria drug the president calls a possible “game-changer” to treat coronavirus. Mr Fauci and other members of a White House team coordinating antivirus efforts, however, want to follow normal medical and scientific practices to first test the medication before using it widely to fight the novel respiratory disease.
Mr Trump thrust his 70-year-old White House director of trade and manufacturing policy back into the national spotlight earlier this month when he handed him a second bureaucratic hat. In the heat of what the Trump administration called a “spike” towards a possible coronavirus “peak” in several “hot spot” cities, Mr Trump turned to Mr Navarro to head up coordination with companies.
Specifically, the president tapped the two-time Harvard University graduate to oversee his administration’s use of the Defense Production Act during the pandemic outbreak. That means it falls to Mr Navarro to talk to companies – or simply force some – to build crucially needed medical equipment like ventilators to fight the respiratory disease and make potentially life-saving protective gear for hospital workers like face masks.
The new role means Mr Navarro is getting more airtime, both on cable television interviews that are frequently seen by his boss, the country’s most-powerful consumer of 24/7 news networks and during appearances alongside other White House coronavirus task force members and Mr Trump during some daily briefings.
Democratic lawmakers and Joe Biden, that party’s leading candidate to capture its nomination for president, have panned the president for, in their view, not using the law to force more companies to do more to fight the virus — and much sooner than he eventually did.
Mr Trump told reporters several times he prefers to use the DPA as “leverage” during talks with American firms. Democrats say that was a rare kind of, in their view, example of Mr Trump misusing his office: this time, by doing too little.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters last week she and her colleague viewed it as “beyond comprehension why he (Trump) has not done that — except that maybe the Chamber of Commerce does not want him to, from what I understand.”
Mr Navarro, who shares many of Mr Trump’s views about global trade and stressing the United Sates needs to be more self-reliant when it comes to producing many of the items and components it now buys from China and other countries, said on Monday he views his new role this way: “There’s three ways to use it.”
“One is in the allocation of resources we have, which is to make sure that the supply chain has enough so that we can make the ventilators, [so] we don’t want to run out of components in the supply chain” and that “in terms of allocation, [we] want to make sure that when we manufacture something, it gets to the right people.”
“The … second thing is mobilisation of the [US] industrial base, and that can mean repurposing factories like GM and Ford, [which] are now turning their auto production into making ventilators,” he told Fox News. “And the third thing basically is cracking down on the kind of black market and profiteering that has arisen.”
Mr Trump’s White House has been plagued by internal staff fights since his first day in office in January 2017. The president has opted to weigh in on a small number, but mostly leaving it to various factions to fight until one side wins — and gains his ear about a coming policy decision.
One former White House official who eventually resigned in frustration said it was hard to do their job because those various groups were constantly jockeying for position, making it hard to bring any single policy decision in for more than a crash landing. That same official said it was virtually impossible to keep everyone in the West Wing on the same page, with each faction telling a different story publicly and in private conversations with reporters.
That person left in 2018, but those problems persist. And Mr Navarro has proved adept at emerging a winner in the internal battles.
Mr Trump appeared to send the other task for members a message recently when he, at one of his nationally televised coronavirus briefings, called Mr Navarro’s Defence Production Act “a very important position,” and “more important, probably, than it’s almost ever been in our country.”
But some leading Democrats question why the president chose a man known more as an academic and author who has strong views of lowering US trade deficits, slamming China and other countries for a slew of what he calls unfair trade practices, and using tariffs to produce more beneficial-to-America trade deals to negotiate with some of the country’s biggest corporations.
The crisis-era implementation of the law means it is up to Mr Navarro to tell Mr Trump if he should “commandeer the factories and the supply chains to produce what’s needed, and then distribute it to the place that’s most needed, so we won’t have … this sort of chicken-with-your-head-cut-off [approach], everybody running around trying to get the equipment,” as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explained the Defence Production Act’s purpose.
“Now, the president appointed somebody, a man named Peter Navarro, a professor on China, to run the production side of it,” the New York Democrat said recently. “I talked to him. He is not up to the job. He’s a very nice man, but he has had no experience doing things like this.”
But Mr Trump often values loyalty and effectiveness on television has qualifications more so than a proven record on a specific issue. Mr Navarro repeatedly shows, with Trump-like, rhetoric one reason the boss picked him.
“What we have, essentially, is a nation at war. We have a wartime president standing behind me,” he said from the White House briefing room last Thursday. “The Defense Production Act is one of the most powerful weapons this administration can use to fight the invisible enemy of the virus.”
And on Monday, while Mr Fauci was still sounding a publicly skeptical tone about the malaria drug on which the president is so transfixed, Mr Navarro was busy praising him for trusting his gut — and urging an uneasy country to do the same.
“There’s also the point of view that we are in war. President Trump is a wartime president, in the fog of war. We might take more risks than we otherwise would,” one of his top trade advisers, Peter Navarro, said Monday during a television interview. “And, given the track record of the drug over many, many years treating malaria, and there are side effects, but it’s been used a lot in lesser doses, the decision’s been made by many doctors to prescribe … it. And if it saves lives, that’s a beautiful thing.”
“I think history will judge who’s right on this debate,” he said, “but I’d bet on President Trump’s intuition on this one.”