Opinion by James Downie Digital opinions editor
September 13, 2020 at 6:11 p.m. EDT
Few Trump White House members have survived the administration’s tumult as well as Peter Navarro. The economics professor and failed California political candidate is officially the director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy; unofficially, he has elbowed his way into the government’s coronavirus response. As The Post reported earlier this month, two coronavirus-related contracts Navarro championed are under internal scrutiny, yet his position appears to remain secure because of “his one true ally: President Trump.” That should be no surprise: When you strip away the glitz that inherited money can buy, Navarro embodies the whiny core of Trumpism.
From the moment Navarro appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, it was clear he hadn’t agreed to this question-and-answer session to actually answer questions. When host Jake Tapper opened by inquiring about the administration’s response to the West Coast wildfires, Navarro had other priorities in mind. “Before we get started … I would really like to congratulate President Trump on being nominated for the peace prize, the Nobel Peace Prize,” he said, before rattling off a list of the president’s groundbreaking work like “relative stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
Tapper steered the interview back to the fires, and specifically their relationship to climate change. It was an obvious question, since as Tapper pointed out, Navarro co-wrote a paper 20 years ago that called climate change “one of the most important environmental problems of our time.” So, asked Tapper, “is anyone at the White House listening to you on this issue?” Navarro stammered, “Look, I’m not — that’s not my expertise, Jake. And, really, I came here to talk about a lot of things. … That was the last on my list.” Yes, the wildfires that have burned millions of acres of land and killed 33 people at last count were the last thing this White House wanted to discuss.
Instead, Navarro urged Tapper turn to the revelations from Bob Woodward’s new book, a request the host was only too happy to oblige. Tapper played two clips, the first a recording of Trump telling Woodward on Feb. 7 that the coronavirus is far deadlier than the flu, the second a video of the president then saying the opposite to CNN’s Sanjay Gupta later that month. “He was misleading the American people, why?” asked Tapper. First, Navarro tried to change the subject to giving the president credit for the China travel ban, claiming Trump was “called a xenophobe and a racist by Joe Biden … who later had to apologize.” When Tapper jumped in to point out neither of those allegations were true, Navarro replied, “Well, you’re wrong.”
And then it became clear why Navarro was so eager to talk about the coronavirus: “On Feb. 7, President Trump talks to Woodward. What happens on Feb. 9? This is the most important thing. A memo — I write a memo that goes out to the task force here that basically outlines President Trump’s strategy for dealing with the virus.” Yes, Navarro wanted to defend something as indefensible as the White House’s pandemic response because he wanted to highlight his contribution.
Nevertheless, again and again Tapper tried to get Navarro to answer the question. Again and again, Navarro dodged. Finally, when Tapper said, “He was not honest with the American people,” Navarro snapped, “You’re not honest with the American people. CNN is not honest with the American people.” At that point, Tapper ended the interview. “I would just like to remind the American people watching,” said Tapper, “that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and the United States has more than 20 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths. That is a fact. It does not matter how many times he insults CNN.”
Superficially, Navarro’s appearance was another television interview gone off the rails — uncommon, but not unheard of. But what makes the wreck instructive for understanding the Trump era is Navarro’s combination of schoolyard insults with demands for credit for faux accomplishments. It mirrored his boss. Trump, because of his office and his inherited wealth, has been able to dress up that combination in all sorts of gild and glitz and yes-men. But take all that away, and you’re left with an angry man wanting everyone to know he won the nonexistent “Bay of Pigs” award. When Trump was a wannabe mogul, that sort of thing was funny. Now, it’s just