White House Adviser Peter Navarro Calls Fictional Alter Ego An 'Inside Joke' | WYPR

White House Adviser Peter Navarro Calls Fictional Alter Ego An 'Inside Joke'

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on October 18, 2019 7:51 pm

A publishing company plans to add an advisory note to future copies of a book written by White House adviser Peter Navarro, after it was revealed that Navarro fabricated one of the people he quoted.

The character Ron Vara appears in Navarro's 2011 book, Death By China, offering dire warnings about Chinese imports.

"Only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon, and a cellphone battery into heart-piercing shrapnel," Vara is quoted as saying.

But while the book is not supposed to be fiction, Vara is a made-up character.

"Ron Vara is an anagram of Navarro," said Tom Bartlett, a journalist who exposed the ruse in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Vara appears in half a dozen of Navarro's books, dating to 2001.

Navarro, who directs the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, defended the fabrication as a "whimsical device."

"At no time was the character used improperly as a fact source," he wrote in an email. "It's just a fun device."

Bartlett grew curious about Vara after being alerted to the character by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor emeritus at the Australian National University.

"She's an Asia scholar and was working on an essay about the rather heated rhetoric of Peter Navarro towards China," Bartlett said.

While Vara is described in one of the books as a doctoral student at Harvard — as Navarro himself had been — the school had no record of him.

Eventually Greg Autry, who co-authored Death By China, acknowledged that Navarro made the character up.

"It's refreshing that somebody finally figured out an inside joke that has been hiding in plain sight for years," Navarro wrote in his email.

But former White House economist Glenn Hubbard, who co-authored another book featuring Vara, told Bartlett he wasn't in on the joke, and he wasn't amused.

Neither was Morris-Suzuki.

"As she put it, the joke wears very thin when you get to certain statements about China and the Chinese people that are quite negative," Bartlett said. "Ron Vara says things that are pretty over the top, and it's hard to construe them necessarily as whimsical in the way we normally use that word."

Navarro's publisher, Prentice Hall, and its parent company, Pearson, were also in the dark about the invented character until this week.

"Pearson has strict editorial standards that apply to all of its publishing businesses and authors," said Scott Overland, the company's director of media relations. "We take any breaches of these standards very seriously and take swift action when one is identified."

Overland said Pearson plans to add a publisher's note to future editions, advising readers that "Ron Vara is not an actual person, but rather an alias created by Peter Navarro."

The episode is not likely to cause Navarro any grief with his boss, however. Donald Trump famously invented his own fictional spokesman, John Barron, in the 1980s. Internet wags have joked that perhaps Barron could offer some PR advice to the newly unmasked Vara.

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A publisher plans to add an advisory to future copies of a book on China after one of the people quoted in the book was revealed to have been made up. The book is not supposed to be fiction. Rather, it's a work about China's rising economic clout. News that some quotes in it are fake is drawing extra scrutiny because the author is a top adviser in the Trump White House. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The book is called "Death By China," and it's co-authored by Peter Navarro, who directs the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. The book came out in 2011 and was turned into a political documentary the following year. The trailer shows a Chinese-made knife plunging into a red, white and blue outline of the United States, which proceeds to ooze blood. Navarro's dire warnings about China echo President Trump's own. Navarro appears regularly on NPR and elsewhere to defend Trump's trade policies. Here he is on Morning Edition just last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PETER NAVARRO: It's intellectual property theft, the killing of Americans with made-in-China fentanyl - I mean, the sins literally go on and on.

HORSLEY: In his book, Navarro quotes a man named Ron Vara, saying only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon. That and other provocative quotes caught the attention of a professor in Australia named Tessa Morris-Suzuki, who eventually brought her concerns to Tom Bartlett, a senior writer with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

TOM BARTLETT: She's an Asia scholar and was working on an essay about the rather heated rhetoric of Peter Navarro toward China.

HORSLEY: The professor asked Bartlett to help her figure out, who is Ron Vara? After some digging, they determined there is no such person. Peter Navarro just made him up.

BARTLETT: Ron Vara is an anagram of Navarro.

HORSLEY: In an email, Navarro acknowledges that Ron Vara is a whimsical device he adopted for purely entertainment value. The character appears in half a dozen of Navarro's books dating back to 2001. Navarro defends the ruse, saying Vara was never used improperly as a source of facts, and he calls it refreshing that somebody finally figured out an inside joke that's been hiding in plain sight for years. But one of Navarro's co-authors, former White House economist Glenn Hubbard, says he wasn't in on the joke, and he told Bartlett he was not amused. Bartlett says neither was Professor Morris-Suzuki.

GLENN HUBBARD: As she put it, the joke wears very thin when you get to certain statements about China and the Chinese people that are quite negative. Ron Vara says things that are pretty over-the-top, and it's hard to construe them necessarily as whimsical in the way we normally use that word.

HORSLEY: Navarro's publisher was also in the dark. A spokesman says the publisher will add a note to future editions alerting readers that Ron Vara is not an actual person. But the episode's not likely to cause Navarro any trouble with his boss, though. Trump famously invented his own fictional spokesman, John Barron, in the 1980s. Internet wags have been joking this week perhaps Barron could offer some PR advice to the newly unmasked Ron Vara.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.