Peter Navarro's role in the pandemic response draws scrutiny

It's easy to blame Navarro for his apparent arrogance. But I'm equally eager to blame those who let him into the Situation Room in the first place.
Image: Donald Trump Peter Navarro
President Donald Trump walks towards White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin and Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as he arrives for the daily Coronavirus-related briefing at the White House, on March 9, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It was about a month ago when administration officials delivered a coronavirus update in the White House press briefing room, and among the officials standing in front of reporters was Peter Navarro, who advises the president on trade policy. There was no official explanation as to why he was there.

But his presence apparently wasn't an accident. As NBC News reported, Donald Trump announced on March 27 that Navarro would serve as the policy coordinator overseeing the administration's enforcement of the Defense Protection Act.

And while that poses its own set of questions -- the White House's handling of the Defense Protection Act has been a mess -- Axios reported yesterday that Navarro joined members of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce in the Situation Room on Saturday, where the trade adviser reportedly served as an aggressive advocate of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.

...Navarro got up. He brought over a stack of folders and dropped them on the table. People started passing them around. "And the first words out of his mouth are that the studies that he's seen, I believe they're mostly overseas, show 'clear therapeutic efficacy,'" said a source familiar with the conversation. "Those are the exact words out of his mouth."

According to the Axios account, Dr. Anthony Fauci, an actual expert on infectious disease, tried to explain the lack of scientific evidence and the flaws in the research Navarro was distributing. The trade adviser reportedly "started raising his voice," insisting that he was pointing to real science, and arguing that Fauci was critical of the White House's earlier policy limiting travel from China.

This apparently left Fauci looking "confused," since he supported the travel restrictions and said so publicly at the time.

One of Axios' sources added, "There has never been a confrontation in the task force meetings like the one yesterday. People speak up and there's robust debate, but there's never been a confrontation. Yesterday was the first confrontation." Another source added, in reference to the private discussion, "It was pretty clear that everyone was just trying to get Peter to sit down and stop being so confrontational."

And while Axios' report hasn't been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Navarro appeared on CNN this morning where he proceeded to argue that he's fully qualified to debate Fauci on the efficacy of medicinal treatments because of his doctoral degree in economics.

"I have a Ph.D," Navarro said. "And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it's in medicine, the law, economics or whatever." He added, "Doctors disagree about things all the time. My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I'm a social scientist."

To the extent that reality matters, physicians and medical professionals may routinely disagree about treatment options and diagnoses, but it's best not to throw around the word "doctor" too carelessly. Fauci is a celebrated physician who's spent the last half-century earning a reputation as a world-class expert on infectious diseases.

Navarro's background in epidemiology does not exist. He's an economist. For him to present himself as a credible expert, qualified to offer a "second opinion" -- a phrase he used during this morning's CNN's interview -- on an unproven treatment is bizarre.

What's more, let's not forget how Navarro entered the president's orbit. Vanity Fair reported a while back, "At one point during the campaign, when Trump wanted to speak more substantively about China, he gave Kushner a summary of his views and then asked him to do some research. Kushner simply went on Amazon, where he was struck by the title of one book, Death by China, co-authored by Peter Navarro. He cold-called Navarro, a well-known trade-deficit hawk, who agreed to join the team as an economic adviser."

It's easy to blame Navarro for his apparent arrogance. He ought to know better than to pick a fight with Fauci in the Situation Room in the middle of a pandemic.

But I'm equally eager to blame those who let Navarro into the Situation Room in the first place. Why in the world is Trump's trade adviser involved with the federal response to the coronavirus crisis at all?

At the risk of sounding picky, shouldn't the president be assigning tasks to people who have relevant skills, expertise, and experience?