'I have a PhD': The spotlight is now on Peter Navarro's role in White House coronavirus response

·National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Peter Navarro has a Harvard degree, and he isn’t shy about letting it be known. “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much,” Navarro joked after President Trump introduced him last week as director of supply-chain issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Always fond of mentioning a person’s Ivy League credentials (including his own), Trump noted that Navarro had two degrees from the prestigious university. 

One of those is a doctorate in economics (the other is a master’s in public policy), but Navarro has used it to suggest that he has broad expertise related to the coronavirus crisis. On Monday, he argued on air with CNN anchor John Berman, who asked him about the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment. Over the weekend, there had been reports that Navarro had clashed bitterly on the matter with Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top National Institutes of Health epidemiologist who is on the coronavirus task force. 

Like the president, Navarro believes the drug should be administered aggressively. Fauci, a renowned veteran of the HIV/AIDS crisis, does not believe there is yet evidence that hydroxychloroquine — which is used to treat lupus and malaria — is helpful in battling COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Asked by Berman what allowed him to make medical pronouncements, Navarro referenced his educational pedigree. “I’m a social scientist,” he said. “I have a PhD,” asserting he was adept at reading medical studies. 

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. (Alex Brandon/AP)
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The coronavirus has touched on nearly every aspect of federal policy, including the one that is Navarro’s academic expertise: China. He was reportedly recruited to the White House by presidential adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who came upon his work browsing on the internet.

Navarro is not the first economist to become involved in the coronavirus response. Before the pandemic arrived in earnest in the United States in early March, top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow repeatedly claimed that the U.S. would not suffer from a serious outbreak. “We have contained this,” he said in late February, describing the Trump administration’s response as “pretty close to airtight.” 

Kudlow has since walked those comments back, but the damage to his already shaky reputation was done. He has not been present at the White House coronavirus briefings.

Navarro’s prominence in the coronavirus response, on the other hand, appears to be growing. (He did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News.)

Unlike Kudlow, Navarro does not come to the White House from cable television. He is a retired professor at the University of California at Irvine business school whose books include “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — A Global Call to Action” and “Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World.”

Navarro during a press interview at the White House on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Navarro during a press interview at the White House on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Navarro’s reputation as a China hawk led to fear that his White House appointment would lead to a trade war. John Tamny, a conservative economist, branded him an “embarrassing scholar” who “misunderstands” the basics of both monetary policy and trade. Last year, his reputation was further damaged when the Chronicle of Higher Education discovered that his books contain a fictional economist, Ron Vara (the name is an anagram of “Navarro”).

A booster of tariffs on Chinese goods, Navarro effectively lost the argument on trade when Trump struck a deal with Beijing last year. Yet he still took credit for getting a better deal than might have otherwise been reached. “The president uses me as a chess piece, as a way of signaling to whoever we are negotiating with that if you’re not going to do the right thing here and bargain in good faith, this is what’s going to happen,” Navarro told the Wall Street Journal.

There have been suggestions since the coronavirus outbreak began that the protracted trade-related hostilities that had been strongly endorsed by Navarro are partly responsible for the equipment shortages in hospitals across the United States. 

Trump introduced Navarro at a White House briefing on March 27 as the “national Defense Production Act policy coordinator for the federal government.” The Defense Production Act allows the federal government  to “influence domestic industry in the interest of national defense.” Shortages have plagued the coronavirus response from the start, with wide-ranging scarcities affecting everything from test kits to hand sanitizers.

Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Peter Navarro in the White House briefing room last week. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Peter Navarro in the White House briefing room last week. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Though he lacks logistics expertise, Navarro has plainly embraced the new role, repeatedly saying that both public officials and private businesses need to act “on Trump time,” meaning as quickly as possible. So far, however, it is not clear just what his involvement has achieved in terms of boosting production of items like hospital ventilators and face masks.  

Navarro’s foothold in the coronavirus task force has allowed him to expand his influence on pandemic-related decision making. Last Saturday, he reportedly engaged in what Axios called “an epic Situation Room showdown” with Fauci, with Navarro pushing for more production and acquisition of hydroxychloroquine. “It was pretty clear that everyone was just trying to get Peter to sit down and stop being so confrontational,” said one person who spoke to Axios about the scene.

But as Navarro’s exchange with Berman on Monday made clear, he is unlikely to back down, whether the subject is trade with China or treatment of the coronavirus. “Doctors disagree all the time,” Navarro told the CNN anchor. Navarro is not a medical doctor. 

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

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