Fresh off their heated, “fuck”-encrusted shouting match in China, tensions and policy fissures between Donald Trump advisers Steve Mnuchin and Peter Navarro are at an all-time high, with the former believing the latter to be a crank and a recurring nuisance, and the latter accusing the former of trade capitulation akin to Nazi appeasement, according to sources who’ve spoken with both men.
Last week, tensions and ideological warfare between Mnuchin, President Trump’s Treasury secretary, and Navarro, the president’s hawkish top trade adviser whom Trump has dubbed “my Peter,” spilled into public view after multiple news outlets reported what was described to The Daily Beast as a “screaming match” between the two senior officials during an official trip to China earlier this month.
Navarro, a nationalist and protectionist hardliner on China and trade, and Mnuchin, a key figure from the free-trader camp of the Trump administration, had been in conflict for weeks over trade negotiations with China. According to those close to Navarro, he views Mnuchin as one of the leading impediments to taking a tough stance toward China in ongoing negotiations—something the president campaigned on but has since taken varying degrees of softer stances about while in office.
Recently, the pair have fought over Trump’s declared openness to relaxing punitive measures on Chinese electronics firm ZTE Technologies—measures that were supposed to penalize ZTE for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and other countries. Relatedly, Navarro believes the trade framework Mnuchin has been negotiating with Chinese government officials will inevitably undermine the president’s “America First” promises.
As for Mnuchin’s positions, Navarro has—according to multiple sources who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity—privately nicknamed Mnuchin “Neville Chamberlain” (in reference to the Conservative British prime minister famous for his foreign policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler) and likened the economic threat from China to that of fascist dictator Hitler.
Mnuchin is sympathetic to free trade and internationalist principles, much like former top Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn—another Trumpworld figure with whom Navarro ideologically and personally clashed, and believed was an even bigger, savvier “globalist” danger than Mnuchin. Navarro, on the other hand, is an author of a book titled Death by China.
“It’s no secret there’s a difference in strategy and perspective on the trade issue between two camps—one is Navarro and [Robert] Lighthizer, and the other is Larry Kudlow and Mnuchin. It’s just a fact of life,” Stephen Moore, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former Trump adviser, told The Daily Beast. “And Trump has said he wants both sides represented at the table… I feel like the press has been blowing this out of proportion. They’re all trying to get a better deal from China. They want to get China to buy more American products and reduce their tariffs… It’s a question of tactically how you get there. It’s just two camps within the Trump contingent. And Trump has said he wants that.”
Blown out of proportion or not, Navarro’s animus toward Mnuchin’s policy preferences has reached the level at which one is apparently comparing the other to a Nazi appeaser. A senior White House official described the dynamic between the two as a “Cold War that became hot,” especially during the China visit. Other administration officials simply expressed dismay at the feud, with one noting with a sigh that “this is not what [Trump] needs right now, more palace-intrigue horseshit.”
According to three knowledgeable sources, Navarro has privately fingered Mnuchin and his team—including Tony Sayegh, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs—as the ones orchestrating an aggressive leak and smear campaign against him in recent weeks. An administration official familiar with the Trump trade team, however, laughed off the notion and contended that it was Navarro who had brought the unwanted attention and spotlight upon himself.
In the past few weeks, it hasn’t only been Mnuchin with whom Navarro has had harsh words. Sources familiar with his internal confrontations tell The Daily Beast that Navarro has, for instance, also engaged in heated disagreement with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, among other top officials. Even those close to, or allied with, Navarro will concede that he has long been an island in the Trump administration, exhibiting often woefully lacking bedside manner.
But according to administration and Trumpworld sources, Navarro still feels comfortable in his position and professional standing in large part because Trump’s instincts about China and trade policies more closely mirror his than Mnuchin’s.
“Our Trade Deal with China is moving along nicely, but in the end we will probably have to use a different structure in that this will be too hard to get done and to verify results after completion,” the president declared on Twitter on Wednesday morning.
According to multiple sources inside and outside the West Wing, Trump has in recent days spoken directly with Mnuchin about his concerns that the current state of negotiations risked giving away too much to China—and being “too generous”—without appropriate concessions and extractions. As one source close to Trump put it, the president told his Treasury secretary to “pump the brakes.”