Peter Navarro, an economist, professor of business, and outspoken critic of China's economic policies was appointed by then-President Donald Trump on Dec. 21, 2016, to head the National Trade Council, set up by the Trump administration. Navarro was a key voice in the former President's ear on the trade war with China and the forming of the USMCA, the 2018 trade deal between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

Key Takeaways

  • Peter Navarro was the former director of the National Trade Council in the Trump administration.
  • Navarro is credited with largely shaping the administration's trade policies, particularly in regard to China.
  • Before his government work, Navarro was an economist, university professor, author, and political candidate. 
  • Navarro is currently a Professor Emeritus of Economics and Public Policy at The Paul Merage School of Business, University of California-Irvine.
  • A staple of right-wing media outlets, Navarro is a notable proponent of false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Pete Navarro

Investopedia / Bailey Mariner

Navarro was among the first White House officials who warned the administration about the coronavirus before it became a global pandemic. According to the New York Times, Navarro issued a memo in January of 2020 warning about the impacts of the virus if it spread outside of China. In the memo obtained by the NYT, Navarro wrote, "The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil."

Early Life and Education

Peter Kent Navarro was born on July 15, 1949, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He graduated from Tufts University in 1972, before earning an MBA in 1979 and a Ph.D. in Economics in 1986 from Harvard. Navarro also spent three years in the Peace Corps in Thailand.

For more than 20 years, he has been a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at The Paul Merage School of Business, University of California-Irvine.

Notable Accomplishments

Academic, Candidate, and Author

As the only academic among Trump's advisers, Navarro had no experience working in government and found little success in running for office. He ran for mayor of San Diego in 1992 and ran for the House of Representatives in 1994 losing both races. Navarro has appeared on major media outlets, including Bloomberg TV, CNBC, and 60 Minutes.

Navarro also published multiple books on business, management, and the markets, such as The Well-Timed StrategyWhen the Market Moves, Will You Be Ready? and What the Best MBAs Know.

Navarro argued for an aggressive stance against China's unfair trade practices, which included intellectual property law violation, currency manipulation, and the exploitation of workers. Since then, he wrote extensively about China. His book, Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World, was published in 2016. Among his other books on China, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action has received the most attention and was made into a documentary in 2012.

Navarro has argued that China is "waging an economic war" through export subsidies, import restrictions, and currency manipulations. According to The New York Times, one of Mr. Trump's favorite books was Navarro’s The Coming China Wars and Navarro's views caught the attention of then-candidate Trump.

Trump Administration Adviser

Navarro's views on China eventually helped him land a job in the Trump administration. Before that, during the 2016 presidential election, Navarro served as the Republican candidate's campaign adviser on economic issues.

As reported by Reuters, Trump called Navarro "a visionary economist" who will "develop trade policies that shrink our trade deficit, expand our growth, and help stop the exodus of jobs from our shores."

Navarro's appointment underscored a rift among Trump's economic advisers, dividing them into those who supported free trade and those who opposed it. Navarro and Wilbur Ross, who was Trump's Secretary of Commerce, pushed for trade restrictions, while the broader team of advisers, which initially included Carl Icahn, Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, and Terry Branstad, strongly advocated free trade.

Director of the White House National Trade Council

In late December 2016, former President Trump appointed Navarro as the director of the White House National Trade Council. Then in late 2017, Navarro became Director of Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy.

On March 1, 2018, Trump announced that the U.S. would impose tariffs of 25% on steel imports and 10% on imports of aluminum. Early reports framed the tariffs as being aimed at China, and the announcement earned a speedy rebuke from Chinese officials, who accused the Trump administration of violating World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. China responded with tariffs, which eventually included over 5,000 U.S. goods sold to China worth $60 billion in trade. The goods included natural gas, peanut oil, soybeans, seafood, and whiskey.

Outrage also came from Brussels, which threatened to retaliate. Jean-Claude Juncker, who was the European Commission president at that time, proposed slapping tariffs on blue jeans, motorcycles, and bourbon. The European Union eventually retaliated to Trump's tariffs on European steel and on June 22, 2019, imposed duties of 25% on $2.8 billion of imports from the U.S.

Although China got much of the attention from former President Trump, it turned out that China was not the largest exporter of steel to the United States and only represented 7% of all U.S. imports. The honor of being the largest source of steel imports went to Canada, which provided 13% of the total steel imports to the U.S.

Responding to claims that the tariffs would harm U.S. industries and consumers, Navarro told Fox, "There are no downstream price effects on our industries that are significant." He added that the effects on consumer prices wouldn't be material. "If you look at a 10% tariff on aluminum, a six-pack of beer or Coke, that's a cent and a half." 

Peter Navarro is a notable source of misinformation about the 2020 election, appearing on right-wing media outlets to spread discredited conspiracy theories.

The Bottom Line

Dr. Navarro has become a bit infamous after the 2020 election for appearing on right-wing media outlets to spread discredited claims about election fraud. But before that, he was a notable economist, author, and public servant who is credited with shaping a large part of the Trump administration's trade policy, especially in regard to trade with China.