An ascendant aide in the Trump White House has warned of the threats posed by climate change, has argued for taxing carbon, has promoted wind power and was even endorsed by the Sierra Club.
The political stock of Peter Navarro, President Trump’s nationalist trade adviser, has been on the rise since he won an internal White House dispute over imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum. Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, is leaving the White House after losing the tariff battle, and Navarro is widely expected to jockey for Cohn’s job. If he gets it, he could soon be charged with overseeing national energy and climate policy. And whether or not he gets a promotion, Navarro has emerged from the tariff war as a more powerful figure in the Trump White House who could play a greater role in shaping administration policies across the board.
So who is this guy?
Navarro, 68, is a longtime economics and public policy professor known for his staunchly nationalist ideals, his withering criticisms of China and his intolerance of opposing views. He was an aspiring politician for a decade, losing in his attempts to become San Diego’s mayor and a California congressman. He’s a Democrat-turned-Trump-supporter who fought development in San Diego, worked with local environmentalists and proudly trumpeted the Sierra Club’s endorsement of his candidacy.
He also has energy credentials — he was a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Energy Office and the Energy Department in the late 1970s and a research associate at Harvard University’s Energy and Environmental Policy Center in the early 1980s.
His prolific writings and public statements on the environment put him at odds with Trump, who has famously called global warming a hoax.
"Global climate change resulting from the widespread burning of fossil fuels has the potential to be one of the most important environmental problems of our time," Navarro said in a 2000 paper he co-wrote with a doctoral student in economics. Navarro was then an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine. The paper promoted wind power as a "weapon in the arsenal to combat global warming."
In a 2007 paper, Navarro said "that global warming is a very significant problem and that carbon dioxide emissions are the principal cause of global warming."
He’s also promoted a carbon tax, writing in 2007, "Economists correctly and perennially argue that the most efficient and direct path to American energy independence and clean skies would simply be to tax oil imports and gasoline as well as carbon."
Navarro has even called for banning incandescent light bulbs, a move favored by environmentalists but loathed by many conservatives. "Our outrage is rooted in a classic mistrust of government interference," Navarro wrote in 2007. "But there are very sound economic reasons to ‘ban the bulb.’"
Decades ago, Navarro was even something of a hero among local environmentalists in San Diego.
Navarro founded the slow-growth group Prevent Los Angelization Now, an organization that fought developers and promoted open spaces.
He was "an environmental pit bull in San Diego," said Peter Andersen, a retired professor of communications at San Diego State University who worked for Navarro’s four failed political campaigns. In the early 1990s, then-City Council member Bob Filner voted to allow a road through an urban wilderness park, which Andersen and Navarro staunchly opposed.
Filner — a Democrat who was later elected to Congress and as San Diego’s mayor — "lied to us" about his vote, recalled Andersen, who’s now on the board of the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter. "Peter literally got up out of the audience" and "excoriated him with profanities and threats," Andersen said. Navarro told him, "You’re dead in politics; you don’t even belong in this town."
Andersen called Navarro a complex character. "There’s a lot I like about the guy; he’s a doer," Andersen said. Also, he said, "he’s kind of a jerk."
His green credentials aren’t an indication that he’ll try to sway the president on that front, according to sources who have worked with him. Above all, they see Navarro as a political opportunist who’s willing to change his policy positions and even his political party to advance his career.
"He’s an environmental opportunist," said Scott Flexo, who worked as a pollster for Navarro during his 1992 campaign for San Diego mayor. "I think he would focus on the environment if it would sell books or if it would get him jobs or get him elected. There really wasn’t a commitment to environmental issues, and you could see that in his behavior and after the election."
One of the big discussions during Navarro’s 1992 campaign, Flexo recalled, was which political party Navarro would choose. He ultimately ran as an independent, losing to the Republican candidate, Susan Golding.
He called himself a "grass-roots" candidate in that race, the Los Angeles Times reported. "On the environment, I’m endorsed by the Sierra Club; she’s financed by the building industry," he said of Golding.
But he no longer has the Sierra Club’s backing. "Any good will Peter Navarro had in 1992 has been squandered by his myopic worldview and work on behalf of a hateful, xenophobic administration," Sierra Club spokesman Adam Beitman said yesterday in a statement.
Golding only narrowly beat Navarro in that race, an outcome Flexo attributed to Navarro’s treatment of Golding during a televised debate.
Golding’s husband had been arrested by the FBI in 1989 on charges that he had agreed to launder more than $1 million he thought came from South American cocaine dealers, United Press International reported at the time. Navarro’s aides had considered whether to bring it up during the campaign.
"Peter just decided to bring it up on television in a debate. He brought it up, and she started to cry, and he didn’t know what to do when she was crying," Flexo said. "She was able to pick up quite a bit of votes from women who felt like he was beating up on her, because he’s very intense and his criticisms of her were very pointed and direct."
That wasn’t the only bad press Navarro suffered during the campaign. Earlier that year, Navarro acknowledged that he had called Golding’s press secretary, Nikki Symington, a "pig" when "the two engaged in a brief shoving match," according to the Los Angeles Times. "Navarro was captured on television forcing his way past the diminutive Symington as he attempted to join Golding, who was being interviewed."
The anecdotes match his reputation as a hard-charging political climber.
"He’s articulate and smart but verbally very aggressive," said Bob Meadow, a partner at Lake Research Partners who worked as a pollster for Golding during the 1992 mayoral race and later worked for Navarro when he ran as a Democrat attempting to unseat California Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray in 1996.
Navarro’s former campaign aides don’t expect Navarro to push Trump to the left on the environment.
"It’s extremely difficult for me to say that there is any ideological grounding to Peter Navarro," Meadow said. "I believe deeply that he is pandering to Trump and that any of the strong environmental positions he held would bend."
Flexo called Navarro a "chameleon" whose "policy positions will be the policy positions that will get him the job and keep him the job." Flexo, who’s now a marketing professor at California State University, Long Beach, kept in touch with Navarro after the failed 1992 campaign and would occasionally teach classes for him.
Asked if they are personal friends, Flexo said, "Oh no. … Peter is a very driven person; he’s not a personable person, so you can’t really get close to Peter." He added, "He can grate on you if you’re not ready and prepared for that kind of a person."
Others find him more approachable. Former Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.), who was chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, penned an article with Navarro in 2016 about space policy when they were both Trump campaign advisers. Walker called him a "very bright, engaging guy." He added, "I found him to be very interesting."
‘Now he’s made it’
He’s an odd fit in the Trump White House, with no natural allies.
There’s widespread belief that major staff defections would follow Navarro’s potential promotion to the top of the National Economic Council. His protectionist views run counter to those of the free-trade, establishment Republican advisers filling the council’s ranks.
Navarro said yesterday that he’s not in the running to replace Cohn. "I’d be honored, but I’m not on that list, let me be clear," he said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. "I’ve got a very full plate here at the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy."
Still, his recent policy victory and Cohn’s departure have shined a brighter spotlight on what Navarro might do with more leverage in the administration.
Despite his past warnings about climate change, he was a supporter of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. He wrote in a July 2017 USA Today op-ed that withdrawal "will save the U.S. economy an estimated 6.5 million industrial-sector jobs, and his regulatory rollbacks have already saved more than $60 billion in unnecessary costs for American companies."
He added that Trump "has unleashed America’s energy potential — a great boon for American manufacturers and consumers. And employment in the coal industry is up, contrary to the cynics’ forecast."
But he has also contradicted major Trump administration energy policy goals. He’s pushed back on plans to help build fossil fuel generators overseas, instead arguing to export renewable energy or help other nations develop their own ability to produce clean energy.
Exporting fuel, another tenet of Trump’s energy and economic policy, is also anathema to Navarro’s worldview, said a source close to the administration. Navarro operates within the long-standing paradigm of energy independence that prizes domestic energy as a strategic and security advantage enabling disengagement with other nations.
"I’ve never gotten the impression that he’s a strong proponent for fossil energy exports. He’s more of an isolationist," said the source. "He would be 100 percent in favor of energy independence. He would be skeptical of any international agreement — he would oppose any international agreement that would harm the U.S."
In addition to backing tariffs on steel and aluminum, Navarro was a strong proponent of slapping tariffs on imported solar panels, which he saw as hitting his top adversary: China. His position as a key player promoting tariffs has made him a convenient punching bag for White House officials who disagree with the president’s trade moves, a former administration official said.
It remains unclear how high Navarro will climb, but some of his former associates say he may already have achieved his main career objective.
"Peter’s career goal was to get to Washington," Flexo said. "He was going to become mayor of San Diego and then leverage that into some other position, senator or congressman. … His goal was always to get to Washington, and now he’s made it."
Meadow said Navarro has always sought "power and having a place to articulate his perspective." Lately, he added, Navarro has been interested in trade and the rise of China, and Trump’s adviser has "a willing audience of one."