Navarro’s White House tenure has been a roller coaster. During the transition, the incoming administration announced he would head a new entity called the National Trade Council. But that organization was later folded into the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, which is not an official policy council, and placed under Navarro’s direction. Navarro involved his office in a wide range of issues. But trade policy languished in the first months, and Navarro’s views often did not win the day.
Last September, Navarro suffered another blow when Chief of Staff John F. Kelly reorganized the White House economics team and placed him under the direction of National Economic Council head Gary Cohn, his nemesis. Then, this month, Trump decided to reverse that move.
On Feb. 12, Trump called Navarro into the Oval Office and asked him why his administration’s trade policy wasn’t more aggressive, according to two senior White House officials. Trump told Navarro that this was the year he wants to move the trade policy forward. He then called in Kelly and told him to move Navarro and his office out of the NEC and restore the office’s independence.
Navarro will also be promoted to the title of assistant to the president, equal in status to Cohn. The move signals that the Trump administration is moving toward a more confrontational trade policy, especially with China, a focus of Navarro’s going back several years.
“The president has come to the conclusion that there’s nobody in the room who shares the president’s views on trade when these decisions are being made,” one senior White House official said.
“This has been building for a long time,” another senior White House official said. “It’s not the nationalists versus the globalists, it’s Trump going forward with the trade agenda that he advertised to the American people.” White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom declined to comment.
The shift inside the White House is partially due to timing. Several major trade decisions are due in the coming months, including on imposing steel and aluminum tariffs, confronting China on intellectual property theft and renegotiating major trade deals, including those with Mexico and Canada and with South Korea. On all of these, Trump has expressed his support for a more confrontational position, which tracks the views of Navarro and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
Some officials believe Kelly had placed Navarro under Cohn for organizational purposes; others are convinced that Kelly was trying to get rid of Navarro as part of his larger purge of campaign officials. Either way, Navarro was a “model prisoner,” one White House official said.
While he fought Cohn and others on trade, Navarro also worked hard to prove his value and make progress on several projects dealing with the manufacturing and defense industrial base, with some demonstrable results.
For example, he was deeply involved in an effort to increase funding for the modernization of the Army’s fleets of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Part of the drive was based on the need to keep the one domestic tank factory and its suppliers in business.
Navarro fought successfully to add another Littoral Combat Ship to the president’s budget last year, in part to make sure that the two shipyards that build them stay afloat. He was part of an effort to push forward U.S. arms sales that were stuck in the bureaucracy at the State Department and on Capitol Hill.
Navarro’s shop drafted the executive order requiring a wholesale review of the defense industrial base, which is due to report back in April on how to make sure the American manufacturing sector is robust enough to provide for national security needs in the years ahead.
“Peter really understands the connection between a robust defense industrial base, national security and a strong manufacturing sector,” said Jim Talent, a former Republican senator from Missouri. “It’s so important to have somebody high up in the White House that makes restoring the defense industrial base a priority.”
Sometimes Navarro’s lower rank allowed him to get involved on a more working level. For example, he led the policy coordination committee process that produced a deal to resolve the U.S. dispute with Qatar over the Open Skies Agreement, which was hailed as a win for all sides involved.
When it comes to China, Navarro has been criticized as being extreme, dating back to his 2011 book and documentary entitled “Death by China.” But the Trump administration has been hardening on China, especially when it comes to trade and economics. Last week, Trump said past U.S. administrations had allowed China to “get away with murder.”
“It’s gotten worse and worse over the years, but we’ll correct it,” Trump said.
The battle over Trump administration trade policy is far from over. But Navarro’s turn of fortune holds a lesson for other Trump officials: If you don’t like the way the White House is going, keep your head down, do good work and wait. In the Trump administration, both personnel and policy are always subject to huge changes.