“Would you take [the drug hydroxychloroquine] if you got sick?” Navarro asked CNN's John Berman.
“Would I take it if I got sick? I would listen to my doctor about whether or not I should take it,” Berman replied. “I would consult my doctor, not someone involved with trade policy. Do you want an internist striking trade deals?"
“Touché,” Navarro replied.
Navarro was hired by Trump specifically because of his hard-line approach to China. The Post’s Sarah Ellison, then at Vanity Fair, reported in April 2017 that Navarro earned a spot in the administration because Donald Trump, when he was running for president, asked his son-in-law Jared Kushner to find an expert on China. Kushner stumbled onto Navarro’s book “Death by China” on Amazon and cold-called him. After Trump won, Navarro joined the administration, repeatedly advocating for strong measures targeting China, including tariffs.
Navarro's January memo about the coronavirus, then, understandably seemed more typical than prescient. Its title was “Impose Travel Ban on China?” and it centered on limiting travel from China where the virus emerged and where authorities had implemented robust efforts to contain its spread.
“The January travel memo struck me as an alarmist attempt to bring attention to Peter’s anti-China agenda,” one person familiar with the memo told Axios's Jonathan Swan, “while presenting an artificially limited range of policy options."
The context of the moment seems to reinforce that view. Navarro’s estimates of the costs of a pandemic rely heavily on a September 2019 report from the Council of Economic Advisers focused on the need to develop a new system for creating vaccines. That report led to an executive order signed by Trump in the same month establishing a task force focused on speeding the development of vaccines to better address a pandemic.
Navarro’s January memo is dated January 29, suggesting that it might have been prepared to contribute to a meeting held the same day, focused on the coronavirus. Trump tweeted about the meeting that evening, including photos of a number of officials arrayed in the White House Situation Room.
Navarro is not shown among them.
Two days later, on Jan. 31, officials declared a public health emergency and announced limited restrictions on travel from China — the “travel ban” that Trump has since embraced as a sign of how seriously his administration was taking the threat of the pandemic. Navarro’s memo focused on the potential cost of failing to take action in both monetary and human terms, but the announcement itself was more measured, with Fauci reiterating that the risk to Americans at that time remained low. (Fauci also noted that the virus appeared to spread even among people who didn’t show symptoms — something that some officials have only recently begun to embrace.)
Trump’s public message at the time was similarly optimistic, and far more gracious toward China.
“We’re working very strongly with China on the coronavirus; that’s a new thing that a lot of people are talking about,” he said in a speech on Jan. 30. “Hopefully it won’t be as bad as some people think it could be. But we’re working very closely with them and with a lot of other people and a lot of other countries.”
“We think we have it very well under control,” he added. “We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully. But we're working very closely with China and other countries, and we think it's going to have a very good ending for it. So that I can assure you."
Navarro’s second memo was dated Feb. 23. It was more specific in both the scale of the potential threat and recommendations for preparing for the possibility of a pandemic. It centered on making the case for $3 billion in appropriations aimed at boosting the availability of protective equipment, vaccine development, testing systems and possible treatments. While the first memo was addressed to the National Security Council, the Feb. 23 one was addressed to Trump himself — and included language clearly aimed at flattering Trump into action.
“In this Administration, we take appropriate risks to protect the public,” Navarro wrote. “We move in Trump Time to solve problems We always skate to where the puck might be — in this case a full-blown pandemic."
“We CAN develop a vaccine and treatment therapeutics in half the usual time,” he continued. “We MUST get appropriate protective gear and point of care diagnostics."
It doesn't appear to have worked. The memo suggested that the country would need a billion protective masks to combat a pandemic and hundreds of thousands of protective suits. An Associated Press report this week stated that “federal agencies largely waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers."
Trump had pivoted toward a Panglossian approach to the coronavirus. He first participated in a briefing about the virus on Feb. 26, touting a report from Johns Hopkins identifying the United States as the country best prepared for a pandemic. He also took a moment to identify his implementation of travel restrictions on China as a sign of how he was being proactive.
“We’ve done a great job,” he insisted the next day. “The press won’t give us credit for it."
The influence of Navarro’s memos on Trump’s approach isn’t clear. But, usefully in this moment, he can point to ways in which he was ahead of the curve. The January memo contrasted the costs of addressing coronavirus with the costs of the seasonal flu, noting how the two differed in both scale and danger. His February memo warned of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls” — an estimate in line with later estimates, including one from Imperial College London that reportedly helped push the administration to take stronger action in addressing the virus.
At the time, though, Trump was not echoing Navarro's rhetoric.
“I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it that — and I spoke with Dr. Fauci on this, and I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year,” Trump said at the Feb. 26 briefing. “That was shocking to me. And, so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is— one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape.”
He returned to that figure later in the briefing.
“When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” he said, “that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”