WASHINGTON — Peter Navarro may have done more than any other official in the Trump administration to help develop the coronavirus vaccine, so it’s a little ironic — though not exactly surprising — that he is not vaccinated.
“I had a chance to get it early. I went on my exit medical interview, I was at Walter Reed, I told them, 'Look, we got few supplies, give it to people who need it,'” Navarro says, sitting across from me in a crowded café in Washington, D.C., several days before the publication of his new book, "In Trump Time: A Journal of America’s Plague Year."
Citing the pandemic, Navarro had declined to shake hands as a greeting, though masking or vaccination would likely do far more to protect him.
“Vaccinate who need it, the elderly and people with comorbidities,” he says in his trademark rapid-fire delivery, more prosecutor than professor. “But you don’t jab a 6-year-old. You don’t jab a professional athlete. That’s insane.”
The 72-year-old Navarro, who served as Trump's director of trade and industrial policy, is neither a child nor an athlete, but he did show up to the interview in decidedly un-Trumpian athleisure (mesh shorts and pullover). In any case, this is another point that would be fruitless to bring up with a man whose self-confidence was remarkable even in an administration where bravado was practically a job requirement.
"In Trump Time" is full of bluster too, unlike most such memoirs. “Despite a surfeit of powerful enemies,” he writes, “I outlasted all who were out to get me.” He seems to relish skewering Republicans even more than he does Democrats.
The pandemic, though, was slightly more consequential than your average West Wing intrigue, leading Navarro to all-too-frequently undermine his own efforts to marshal a response to meet the moment. The tension remains evident today. Despite lacking either medical training or degree, Navarro freely makes medical pronouncements. “When you universally vaccinate, the science tells us we run the risk of a super-mutation that could kill everybody who’s been vaccinated,” he says.
In fact, viruses tend to mutate in order to become more transmissible, not more deadly, since a virus that kills its host organism cannot survive. Nor has any variant of the coronavirus that has emerged so far shown itself capable of evading vaccines. The Delta variant has preyed not on fully vaccinated people but on those, like Navarro, who haven’t been vaccinated at all.
The aforementioned exit interview, at which a dose of the then-scarce vaccine was offered, came at the very end of the Trump administration. Other senior advisers had left after Jan. 6, but Navarro remained loyal to the boss. He still is, and his book is filled with discredited claims of election theft promoted by Trump.
“I go in on Thanksgiving Day, put on my Harvard researcher big-boy pants, no turkey, no football, no problem, and, and begin wading through” thousands of pages of election-related affidavits, he says, neglecting to mention that many of those included transparently ridiculous allegations. A year later, he is still wading through a sea of half-truths and insinuations, with seemingly little to show for it but a solid chunk of the electorate refusing to believe that President Biden is the nation’s democratically elected leader.
Far more compelling — if no less fraught — are the questions Navarro has been asking about the origins of the coronavirus. He was an early and avid proponent of the hypothesis that the pathogen somehow made its way out of a Chinese laboratory. He doesn’t have proof and neither does anyone else, but the idea has steadily moved from the conspiratorial fringe to receiving serious consideration by the upper ranks of the Biden administration.
Navarro came to Washington from the West Coast, where he had been an economist at the University of California, Irvine, to act as the top general in Trump’s trade war with China. He left convinced that the communist nation had foisted the coronavirus upon the world. The notion that anti-Chinese sentiment led him to that conclusion irritates Navarro (one suspects much else does too; in fact, his book is tinged with a kind of irritation at people he considers stupid, dishonest or corrupt, a cohort that constitutes much of the Washington establishment).
“I love the laobaixing,” he says, using a Mandarin term for ordinary Chinese people. “They are the biggest victims of the Chinese Communist Party. What I loathe is, effectively, what is a criminal organization, a cartel in the Chinese Communist Party, a small handful of malicious sociopaths.”
To his credit, Navarro was one of the few in that White House to recognize early on that the new pathogen would be a world-disrupting event. He describes, in overheated but definitely not boring prose, sitting at an East Wing event on Jan. 15, 2020, “consumed by an almost primordial fear,” having just caught news of “a mysterious virus rampaging” through Wuhan.
There are Chinese diplomats at the event, and Navarro regards them warily: “What do these Communists know about what is going on in Wuhan that we don’t?”
Combative rhetoric about China was de rigueur during the Trump administration, in particular after it became clear that the coronavirus had originated there; it persisted even after Asian American leaders reported a rise in hate attacks. Biden has tried to keep China as a geopolitical foe without stoking xenophobia with unnecessarily combative rhetoric.
As is his habit, Navarro takes things further than most others, into territory that might be called reckless. He charges that the Chinese Communist Party used the coronavirus “like a bioweapon — and likely designed it as such,” a contention that enjoys no mainstream scientific support.
For now, Navarro can take comfort in his conviction that the Biden administration is, in his unstinting view, an unmitigated disaster, in particular when it comes to handling the economy. He believes that the current inflationary and supply chain crisis is “worse than the ’70s,” when Jimmy Carter was in part undone by gas shortages and the one-two punch of stagflation.
“It’s all pie-in-the-sky green stuff,” Navarro says. “The Biden regime is effectively over. I mean, his approval ratings are in the toilet. This is a verification of the fact that the American people have totally repudiated what these people stand for.”
Two days after that pronouncement, Biden passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that will be the most sizable federal outlay in generations.
Navarro is about as unyielding and unfazed as I expected him to be. “As they say on Wall Street, that was a ‘dead cat bounce,'’’ he writes in a text message. “What good is a new lane on the freeway when gasoline is heading towards five bucks a gallon? All economic and political indicators are pointing south.”