Navarro is just one player in the entire government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, but his ascent is symbolic of Trump’s ever-changing response to the crisis and the extent to which Trump embraces a wide range of votes – and the inevitable fight – as he leans from a picture of this pandemic to the next. Internal divisions, competing interests and presidential decisions have all been hallmarks of Trump’s West Wing culture since its inception, but never have they had such consequences of life or death.
“Two or three years ago, he was completely excluded, completely stored in a box,” said an administrative official, comparing him to a “gadfly.”
When Navarro fired his internal flare at the end of January, other White House officials dismissed his memo – which focused exclusively on banning travel from China as a cure – as the latest anti-China musing by a man who considers almost every issue through it ideological lenses. And although his warning in the worst case may now be real – billions of dollars in financial losses and millions of Americans infected, the trade advisor relied on only a few data points and no public health expertise to make his case.
Less than a month later, as Trump continued to downplay the threat, Navarro warned that the risk of a pandemic increased and urged the White House’s coronavirus working group to secure billions in extra spending, according to two sources familiar with the second memo, one of which delivered a copy to CNN.
Trump said Tuesday that he did not see Navarro’s coronavirus warnings until a “day or two” ago but that he had not searched for them.
When asked why he initially trivialized the coronavirus, even when his advisers warned of potential devastation, Trump said during his daily coronavirus review that he was not interested in causing panic.
“I’m not going to go out and start screaming, this could happen,” Trump said. “I’m a cheerleader for this country. I don’t want to create havoc and shock.”
When asked about the memo lists on Tuesday, another Trump economic adviser to National Economic Council President Larry Kudlow said he had not read them.
“Look, there are many voices in the administration, some more urgent than others,” he said.
Not the only voice
Navarro was not the only official at the White House to fire early warnings and many public health experts expressed concern when both memorial lists. But the memos are the latest evidence that undermines Trump’s insistence at the time that the administration had the situation under control and his later claims that the pandemic the US is now facing were “unforeseen.”
That in itself poses a risk to Navarro’s status with Trump, a raucous TV news consumer who violates being contradicted or undermined by his aides.
Although Trump’s increasingly sober response (in terms of fit and beginning) is largely driven by a combination of stock market noses, models that predicted bleak deaths and political voting, Trump’s views on hydroxychloroquine have been shaped by a kitchen cabinet with friends and advisers – many of whom lack all medical expertise – who has tested the benefits of the drug.
Despite public and private precautions by Fauci, the best communicable disease expert, Trump continues to promote hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus, which is encouraged by the views of TV personalities such as Dr. Mehmet Oz and by external advisers such as his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, according to people familiar with the matter.
While senior medical researchers brought into the White House pressure on decisions such as expanding social distance guidelines during lively meetings in the Situation Room, Trump’s political and economic advisers continue to exert their own influence in smaller Oval Office ripples, where ideas are sometimes quickly formed without knowledge of the larger team.
Some officials said the loose organization has enabled faster decisions and actions, including through a parallel effort led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to leverage the private sector to get more supplies.
But other ideas, such as a potentially mandatory quarantine for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that Trump hovered last weekend, seem to pop up randomly without the task force’s information. Trump raised the idea after talking to Florida’s governor but warned to move by doctors and eventually backed up.
With large stretches of the White House workforce working remotely and the number of outside visitors limited, Trump has accelerated his phone calls with an expanded range of advisers and friends, not all of whom are tracked by his assistants. Trump has caught the glitter of hope in an otherwise difficult global crisis and tried to offer optimism even when the forecast is unclear at best.
In his daily briefs, which have largely replaced political rallies or engagements with reporters at South Lawn, Trump has offered confusing public announcements that often reinforce what his working group has planned or what his officials have agreed behind the scenes. People who know the thing said it reflects the constant set of official and unofficial efforts, where Trump can choose what sounds best at any given moment.
During a briefing Sunday, Trump resisted when a reporter asked Fauci to give his opinion on the drug after Trump again recommended it.
“You know how many times he has answered that question? Maybe 15 times,” Trump said, refusing to allow Fauci to answer the question.
The moment only served to highlight the gap between the two men – one a doctor, the other a layman – about the science behind the drug’s effectiveness. Fauci has made his views known that hydroxychloroquine remains unprovoked to treat coronavirus, a public refusal from Trump that has caused some tension between the men.
As the White House begins to take on the Wild West’s sense of the early months of Trump’s presidency, former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows has begun to step into his role as Chief of Staff.
Meadows, who officially arrived at the job last week, has so far not attempted to reduce the flow of information to the president, a tactic adopted by Trump’s second chief of staff John Kelly but abandoned by his third, Mick Mulvaney. And he has not resisted Trump’s desire to act as the official front man for the federal response. Nor has he tried to challenge Kushner’s and his wife Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, first among equal status.
Ducks were warned by several people in Trump’s orbit that Kushner and Ivanka Trump were a force to be reckoned with for any senior official in the White House, says a former White House leader. Several sources from Congress and the White House told CNN that Meadows and Kushner are doing well.
A White House official said Meadows plans to strike a balance between Kelly – who carefully watched Trump’s schedule and information flow to him – and Mulvaney, who embraced chaos and the “Let Trump be Trump” mantra.
Unlike former chiefs of staff at the Trump White House, administrative officials said Meadows has not attempted to block Navarro’s access to Trump or his participation in key meetings. Kelly, meanwhile, worked with other officials to prevent Navarro from influencing trade discussions and demanded that Navarro copy him on all his outgoing emails.
Kushner, arguably the most influential West Wing assistant, has also embraced Navarro in his role as the leading medical supply chain, according to three officials. Kushner has distributed Navarro as a “bad cop” in the sometimes disputed efforts to get medical supplies companies to increase their production and supply of critical equipment.
He has also found an ally in national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who shares some of Navarro’s mistrust of China and who “encourages Peter to play a bigger role”, according to an administrative official – a stark contrast from how former national security advisers treated Navarro.
“He finally has a constellation of people who are not only openly hostile to him, but are friendly to him,” the official said.
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.