WH trade adviser pressed to defend China accusations

Peter Navarro also laments "talented" whistleblower's complaints on "This Week."

May 17, 2020, 12:04 PM

Peter Navarro, one of President Donald Trump's top economic advisers, excoriated China's response to the coronavirus outbreak Sunday, accusing the country of hiding the virus from the world and subsequently taking down the American economy.

On ABC's "This Week" Navarro stopped short -- under questioning by ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos -- of claiming that it was the Chinese's intention to harm the American economy, but did accuse the country of being unable to contain the outbreak and of misleading other nations about its severity.

"I did not say they deliberately did it, but their China virus -- let's go over the facts here, correct me if I'm wrong -- the virus was spawned in Wuhan Province, patient zero was in November. The Chinese, behind the shield of the World Health Organization for two months, hid the virus from the world, and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed that," Navarro claimed, without offering evidence such travel was directed by the Chinese government.

"They could have kept it in Wuhan, instead, it became a pandemic," he continued. "So that's why I say the Chinese did that to Americans and they are responsible now."

Navarro, who holds the title of director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, has led the administration's efforts to procure medical supplies and protective equipment during the pandemic.

In late January, Navarro was among the first advisers in the White House to sound the alarm about the potential seriousness of the coronavirus, writing a memo in which he noted that "the lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless," and that an outbreak could evolve into "a full-blown pandemic."

On "This Week" Sunday, Navarro argued that, despite widespread criticism to the contrary, the Trump administration was engaging with the spreading pandemic throughout the month of February, shortly after he penned that memo, pointing to Trump's decision to halt travel from China -- a move Navarro personally advised.

But given his critiques of China, he was questioned by Stephanopoulos why, during that same period when the virus was spreading from the country, Trump was complimentary of Chinese President Xi Jinping as he continued to negotiate a trade deal.

"The president was continuing to praise China, was continuing to praise President Xi of China. He was trying to work out that trade deal with China, wanted to preserve that, wanted to preserve the gains in the stock market," Stephanopoulos said. "It was President Trump who was praising China all through the month of February, and, you know, there's a lot of evidence that those lost weeks made a difference."

"First of all, I think it's great that we have a president that can get along with all world leaders," Navarro responded. "But number two, there's no lost weeks. ... We were moving on three vectors of attack in February: vaccine development, development of therapeutics like Remdesivir, and the building up and capacity for things like N95 masks."

"And the work we did throughout February has born beautiful fruit here in this spring," Navarro continued, pointing to the vaccine development push announced Friday, and continued production and distribution of treatments and supplies.

PHOTO: White House Trade and Manufacturing Policy Director Peter Navarro speaks during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House, March 27, 2020, in Washington, DC
White House Trade and Manufacturing Policy Director Peter Navarro speaks during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House, March 27, 2020, in Washington, DC
Drew Angerer/Getty Images, FILE

Among those vocal in opposition to the administration's February outlook has been presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. When asked about the former vice president's accusation that the White House "squandered critical time" and is now "play(ing) the China card" to distract from its initial efforts, or lack thereof, to combat the outbreak, Navarro condemned Biden's work during the Obama administration and repeated a misleading claim about his son's business dealings.

"I do think this election is going to be a referendum in many ways on China," he said. "So we'll have Joe Biden, long friend of China. President Donald J. Trump, the only president in modern history to stand up to China."

Domestically, in recent days, Navarro has become a figure in the Dr. Rick Bright whistleblower controversy. Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who claims he was pushed out of his position, in part, for raising issues with the Trump administration's pursuit of unproven coronavirus treatments, mentioned Navarro multiple times in his whistleblower complaint, writing that he "shared Dr. Bright's concerns about the potential devastation the United States would face," and spoke out about the nation's preparedness.

But the White House declined an invitation for Navarro to appear Thursday at a congressional hearing about Bright's complaints on his behalf, and on "This Week" he continued his recent public criticisms of the doctor's actions.

"It's an American tragedy, George. This guy is quite talented, but he was asked to be the field commander over at NIH to storm the testing hill with a billion dollars behind him. Instead of accepting that mission, he deserted," Navarro said Sunday. "He went into a fox hole, wrote up the complaint, and now he's part of a Capitol Hill partisan circus where he's just become another pawn in the game."

"And the tragedy, George, is this man has talent. He's a smart man," he told Stephanopoulos. "We could have used him on the battlefield. He's not there now. And it was because of the decisions that he made."

And while he noted the issue was outside of his "lane," Navarro also commented on Trump's firing of the State Department's inspector general Friday -- a controversial move already facing an inquiry led by congressional Democrats said they believe the dismissal could have been retaliatory and potentially illegal.

"There's a bureaucracy out there. And there's a lot of people in that bureaucracy who think that they got elected president, not Donald J. Trump," Navarro said, after first claiming the firing was within the president's "legal authority" on Sunday. "And we've had tremendous problems with, you know, some people call it the 'deep state.' I think that's apt."

"So I don't mourn the loss of people when they leave this bureaucracy," he continued. "There's always going to be somebody better to replace them, somebody more loyal -- not to the president necessarily, but to the Trump agenda. That's what's important."

Navarro also reacted to the fifth economic stimulus bill passed by the House of Representatives on Friday -- which is unlikely to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate and to Trump's desk -- pointing to the earlier "fiscal and monetary stimulus … coursing through the system now" and saying only, "we may need more."

"Fed(eral Reserve) Chairman (Jerome) Powell says we do need more," Stephanopoulos said in response.

"Well, what I'm focused on, George -- and this is the real key to success -- is going to be the structural adjustments we're going to have to make," Navarro responded. "For every service sector job we might loss as we adjust to this … we're going to have replace that with manufacturing jobs, which do have a high multiplier in terms of creating service sector jobs again."

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