Meet the Donald Trump advisor who was once among Hillary Clinton’s most emphatic fans

Peter Navarro, an economic advisor to Donald Trump, once described this 1996 event where Hillary Clinton campaigned for his failed congressional run as "heavenly."
(San Diego Union-Tribune)

The colorful California academic who helped inspire Donald Trump’s rants against free trade deals has had an interesting life full of interesting experiences that he details in his many books.

But one really stands out – so much so that Peter Navarro, an outspoken member of Trump’s economic advisory team, called it “sweet manna from heaven.”

It was the day Hillary Clinton came to San Diego to give his run for Congress a boost.

Clinton, of course, is now one of Navarro’s favorite villains. Navarro, a UC Irvine professor, rarely misses an opportunity to tear down her resume. His polished critiques of Clinton are one of the more potent weapons of the Trump campaign, which has struggled to attract credentialed economic thinkers. Navarro can often be found on cable news, on the radio and in the pages of major newspapers warning about how a Clinton administration would lead to more misery for a shrinking middle class.


But he had a different view of Clinton during his unsuccessful run for Congress in San Diego in 1996. Navarro was a Democrat then, and had then written quite extensively about the virtues of the free trade deals he now reviles. In his 1998 tell-all memoir “San Diego Confidential,” Navarro details his encounter with Clinton alongside a large picture of the two standing together with wide grins.

“I don’t know why so many people in America hate Hillary Clinton,” Navarro wrote. “I found her to be one of the most gracious, intelligent, perceptive, and, yes, classy women I have ever met.” He wrote admiringly of how Clinton lured 3,000 people to come to his rally the Saturday before election day, and stirred up an enthusiasm he had not previously experienced.

“Walking up to the podium before the cheering crowd, I felt like the pope in Buenos Aires, Larry Bird in the Boston Garden, and Billy Graham in Oklahoma all rolled into one. What a thrill it is to give a speech to a crowd that roars with approval at your every utterance!”

Reached by phone, Navarro said he was simply among the many in the 1990s where were seduced by the charm and power of the Clintons. “I did not know at the time that Bill and Hillary Clinton had already begun what would become the Clinton Foundation corruption scheme even as I was standing there with Hillary that night,” Navarro said. “It’s fair to say my encounters with the Clintons were the same kind of seduction they have been getting away with for years. ... I didn’t have the awareness I probably should have.”

Navarro said his “evolution” to judging the Clintons to be “two of the most corrupt political figures in American history” came only years later, as he focused his research on the trade deals they pursued, their effect on the economy, and the donations from foreign leaders that flowed to their foundation. He now accuses them of running “an arrogant scam” that is “Bernie Madoff-esque.”

Now, Navarro may cringe when looking back at what he wrote in 1998. In one passage of the book, he reminisced fondly about the photo of his event with Clinton that ran prominently in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Hillary and I stand together applauding the crowd, exuding an almost cherubic warmth that, frankly, tends to elude us both,” it said.

Navarro also expressed wonderment then for how Clinton deftly worked donors, charming 10 of them who each paid a thousand dollars to have their photo taken with the then first lady before a background of black velvet and American flags. “I came in in the middle of the flashbulbs going off and just lay back and let Hillary do her thing with my donors,” Navarro wrote.

In this strange election cycle, these sorts of past affiliations are not particularly unusual. Trump himself had Clinton as a guest to his wedding. On his syndicated radio show in 2008, Trump said of Clinton: “I know her and she’d make a good president or good vice president.”


Now he smiles as crowds at Trump rallies chant, “Lock her up.” Navarro calls Clinton “almost like the sociopath who does not know right from wrong.”

The economist was more forgiving two decades ago when he pondered whether Clinton inadvertently helped incumbent GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray beat him by more than 21,000 votes. Navarro recalled in his memoir how one of his advisors saw the photo in the Union-Tribune and thought, “Wow, the only thing better than this would have been a shot of Navarro arm-in-arm with Jesse Jackson or Fidel Castro.”

But the economist also said then he had no regrets, writing, “The Hillary rally was a heavenly experience.”

And Navarro would learn while campaigning with Clinton an art that Trump would put to frequent use at his campaign events two decades later: intimidating protesters. Navarro wrote about how his “bodyguard and otherwise guy Friday” Ralph Santora walked up to two potential hecklers and warned them, “The first time you raise your voices in this auditorium, you’ll be out of here on your asses. … Make my day.”


“Ralphie then got two Secret Service agents to shadow them, and true to his word, when these gentlemen started heckling at the beginning of my speech, they were out on their rear ends within seconds,” Navarro wrote. “Good job, Ralphie.”

Follow me: @evanhalper

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