Then the hawks got the upper hand. Though Navarro had been exiled from the inner sanctum, he earned a reputation among colleagues for skulking around the White House after hours, hoping to catch the president and bend his ear. (Navarro has disputed this characterization.) Nudged by Navarro, Trump realized that his views were being undermined by his own people. “My Peter,” as Trump sometimes calls Navarro, came back into favor. Cohn quit. Trump finally got his trade war.
Navarro is not working on nitty-gritty policy or handling negotiations. His team is tasked with “buy American” and “hire American” initiatives. His mission, he told me, “is to strengthen our manufacturing and defense industrial base, and to create good jobs for men and women to work in American manufacturing.” But that undersells his influence. His power derives from his willingness to go to the mat for his boss’s harshest ideas, much as Stephen Miller does on immigration policy. “There’s only a few people that, from a policy standpoint, understand the president as well as Peter does,” says David Bossie, who worked with Navarro on the campaign and transition. In the White House, colleagues describe him yelling, bullying trade traditionalists in meetings, and writing hang-tough memos.
The administration has argued that its tough negotiations—including its new nafta-type deal with Mexico and Canada—are bringing nations around the globe together to confront the Chinese menace. “All the actions that the administration has taken have resulted in people around the world coming to an agreement that China needs to be dealt with,” says Dan DiMicco, one of Trump’s trade advisers.
Are the Chinese intimidated? They’re certainly confused. American officials raise issues only to later drop them. They contradict one another. The ideological warfare within the White House, as well as the lack of experience on the international economic team, has left China and others unsure of U.S. policy, or even its goals. “If we’re not going to go back to the way things were, we have to have an idea of where we’re going,” says Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute. “And, due to the disagreements within the administration, no one does.”
Navarro counters that the administration’s goals are clear: It is trying to reduce Chinese imports, strengthen American exports, and scare Beijing straight. It is not, he says, trying to execute a divorce between the two countries. “That’s a corrosive narrative not coming from any of the principals,” he said. “All we’re doing is defending this country from economic aggression by China and others.”
Perhaps. But American allies are alienated. Foreign countries talk about trying to wait out the Trump administration. As the tariffs come into effect, companies that rely on imported parts are initiating layoffs. Consumer prices are starting to rise, and there is mounting evidence that the trade war is slowing down the economy. Meanwhile, the trade deficit is growing, not shrinking.
“I fully expect over time, as we get all of our trade policies in place, that trend will strongly reverse,” Navarro assured me. “China keeps engaging in the worst forms of unfair trade practices. Same with Europe. We’re talking to them, but they’re still sticking it to us.” The war, it seems, has only just begun.
This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “Trump’s Trade Warrior.”