Column: The weird saga of Peter Navarro, from California environmentalist to Trump henchman

In a failed political career, Peter Navarro went through many incarnations before ending up a lackey for President Trump.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Peter Navarro wasn’t always a sad, whiny insurrectionist. There was a time the former White House trade advisor and Trump henchman was all bright, shiny promise.

In the early 1990s, running as an independent, his good looks drew comparison to Robert Redford and his slow-growth platform nearly got him elected mayor of San Diego.

A few years later, running for Congress as a Democrat, he spoke at the party’s national convention and snagged the endorsement of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who headed west to bless Navarro’s unsuccessful campaign.


Today, it seems hard to reconcile the nutty former UC Irvine professor who schemed to steal the 2020 election for President Trump with the candidate who inveighed against “fearmongering” politicians and “the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.”

Who disparaged Rush Limbaugh and excoriated Pete Wilson’s 1996 presidential bid, saying the former California governor and San Diego mayor hoped “to cynically ride a tidal wave of white male rage and anti-immigration fervor right down the Potomac and into the White House.”

But there is a through-line, say those who have known and observed Navarro for decades: a monumental self-regard, a bottomless hunger for attention — he once showed up for a mayoral campaign event wearing nothing but a Speedo — and an utter lack of grounding principles.

“He was disciplined. He was focused. He’s got a real work ethic and he’s got intelligence,” said Larry Remer, who ran Navarro’s 1996 congressional campaign. “But you’re talking about a guy who campaigned by getting up every day and saying, ‘I’ll be [then-House Speaker] Newt Gingrich’s worst nightmare. Does he have core values? I don’t think so.”

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Navarro, 72, has been indicted for refusing to cooperate with the congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Trump’s brazen efforts to overturn the will of voters and commandeer the White House.

Investigators would like to know more about Navarro’s interactions with the scheming former president and about Navarro’s so-called Green Bay Sweep, the plan he wrote calling for Vice President Mike Pence to block the Senate from certifying the 2020 election and for Republican-led legislatures to decertify the vote in key battleground states.


Navarro happily blabbed to reporters about his subversive efforts and described them in a book after the election, which the committee noted in the subpoena he chose to ignore.

Lately, however, the armchair mutineer has been reduced to mewling on Fox News and other Trumpaganda media outlets about his treatment by the justice system he sought to subvert — “Who are these people? This is not America” — and grifting appeals for money to help bail him out of his legal jam.

“This is going to cost half a million dollars, from what I’m being told,” he moaned. “I’ll be eating dog food if I stay out of jail.”

Maybe he can enjoy a few square meals wearing prison stripes.

Navarro’s entry into San Diego politics came through his leadership of Prevent Los Angelization Now, an environmentalist group that tapped into the city’s abiding antagonism toward its sprawling northern neighbor. The economics professor parlayed his high profile and preservationist bona fides into a first-place finish in the crowded 1992 mayoral race, then narrowly lost a runoff as developers and other moneyed interests got behind his Republican opponent, Susan Golding.

(Some say Navarro lost the race in their final debate when Golding tearfully recounted the pain Navarro had caused with a negative ad and he acted like a jerk in response.)

Navarro passed through a revolving door of party allegiances, alternately identifying himself as Republican, Democrat and independent. Over the course of a decade, he ran a series of increasingly fruitless campaigns for various offices, racking up a total of five losses.

His cocky, abrasive personality didn’t help.

“When he ran for mayor as a fresh face, filled with ideas for a greener San Diego, he started out with a good chance of winning,” said Samuel Popkin, an emeritus professor at UC San Diego, who has long studied politics at the local and national levels. “Step by step in this race and future races he alienated volunteers and donors.”

After his failure in electoral politics, Navarro retreated into academia and became a harsh critic of China and its business and trade policies. He wrote several books on the subject — “Death By China” was one of them — and drew the appreciative notice of Trump, who hired Navarro as an economic advisor to his 2016 campaign.

In the White House, Navarro became a leading advocate for tariffs and the trade war Trump waged not only against China but also allies such as Canada and the European Union.

The president and Navarro also seemed to bond over a shared sense of victimhood and their slippery relationship with the truth.

“He always had this kind of conspiratorial bent,” said Tom Shepard, who ran Golding’s mayoral campaign against Navarro. “There was always some evil force behind whoever or whatever he opposed. It was the developers. It was the Republicans. And then, after he moved from San Diego to Irvine, it was China.”

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After losing his 1996 bid for Congress, Navarro wrote a dishy autobiography, “San Diego Confidential,” chock-full of raw commentary on state and local personalities and deeply revealing about its frustrated author. He called himself “the cruelest and meanest son of a bitch who ever ran for public office in San Diego.”

“I still have some principles, but not as many as you might think,” he wrote, “because I don’t have any concern at all about making stuff up about my opponent that isn’t exactly true.”

Navarro may be uncommonly egotistical, desperate for relevance and mercenary in both word and deed. But he shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

When Navarro describes himself as ruthless, unscrupulous and a liar, he should be taken at his word.