Meet Peter Navarro—the Man Behind Trump’s Embrace of Tariffs

 In U.S.

WASHINGTON—For

Peter Navarro,

President

Donald Trump’s

trade guru, it’s been quite a turnaround.

Last spring, he was running the White House’s Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, an impressive-sounding group that consisted of himself and an aide in a single room in a building across the alley from the Oval Office. He couldn’t persuade the White House to hire him an administrative assistant, and he reported to the president through his rival, National Economic Council Director

Gary Cohn.

The White House, the 68-year-old told some visitors, was like the bloody TV series “Game of Thrones,” and he was dodging arrows. The “deep state”—conservative lingo for the Washington bureaucracy—was trying to torpedo the president, he complained.

Now, Mr. Cohn has resigned. After lobbying by Mr. Navarro, the president on Thursday signed proclamations imposing heavy tariffs on steel and aluminum. White House officials say Mr. Navarro is in the running to replace Mr. Cohn, who fought against the tariffs. Next on the president’s trade agenda are possible sanctions on China for intellectual-property violations—a longtime goal of Mr. Navarro, who came to candidate Trump’s attention with his anti-Beijing books.

Mr. Navarro “has persistence, and that persistence has paid off in terms of rising up the ladder to a position of prominence,” says

Michael Wessel,

an adviser to the United Steelworkers.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Navarro and billionaire investor

Wilbur Ross,

now the commerce secretary, put together Donald Trump’s trade and economic plan.

“The president—he’s the man who leads. He says, ‘I want to do this. How do we do it?’ ” Mr. Navarro says in an interview. “The way I help is figuring out how you might do it.”

Mr. Navarro was the campaign’s only Ph.D. economist and had left a tenured position at the University of California, Irvine. Before Mr. Trump took office, he named Mr. Navarro to run a new National Trade Council, which was seen as being on a par with the NEC and the National Security Council.

George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen says Mr. Navarro’s early academic work, which focused on energy policy and charities, was good enough “to be published in respectable journals.” He says his work on China isn’t up to that same standard: “It’s a polemic.”

Mr. Navarro focused on China later in his career. In his book “Death by China,” Mr. Navarro mixed incendiary language—China is “turning into the planet’s most efficient assassin”—with what have become fairly mainstream recommendations. They included stopping Beijing from pressuring U.S. companies to transfer technology to their Chinese partners and blocking Chinese state-owned firms from buying U.S. companies. The administration is following that line.

Mr. Navarro also urged the U.S. to create a partnership with Europe, Japan “and other victims of China’s mercantilism” to sue China in the World Trade Organization. President Trump has eschewed such multilateralism. The proposed steel and aluminum tariffs would apply to many nations and have raised protests in Western nations and China, producing a kind of ad-hoc coalition against U.S. trade policy.

Early in his White House tenure, Mr. Navarro was boxed in. His National Trade Council—himself and his aide—busied itself trying to help individual companies with trade problems, not setting broad trade policy. Putting the best face on it, Mr. Navarro at the time called it a “SWAT team” approach.

His early appearances on Capitol Hill to explain trade policy didn’t go well. In a February session, he appeared unprepared to answer questions on specific trade issues posed by lawmakers, say Congressional aides. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said in a letter to Mr. Navarro he was “troubled” by what seemed to be the administration’s inattention to steel companies.

In April, the National Trade Council was disbanded and replaced by the less-grandiose sounding Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy—still Mr. Navarro and his aide. The rebranding effectively demoted him and confirmed that trade was being handled by Mr. Cohn’s NEC. He focused on strengthening the military’s industrial base and examining Buy-America provisions.

“I don’t worry about getting outmaneuvered,” Mr. Navarro said then. “I just worry about getting things done.”

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