Memos reviewed by Lauren Brodsky, HKS Lecturer in Public Policy
The New York Times and Axiom have exposed the pleas, on the record, of Assistant to the President Peter Navarro in the months leading to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s excruciating now to read these memos, written January and February, whereby Navarro lit the siren for the administration to act quickly and prepare.
Although Axiom claims that “the NSC circulated both memos around the White House and multiple agencies,” Trump claimed to have never read them in a recent press briefing. Trump argues that his decision to close down travel from China – the subject of the January memo from Navarro -- was his swift response; denying that social distancing and shut-downs could have been impactful earlier. While we know that Navarro was not part of the Covid-19 Task Force, it is hard to truly gauge the impact of his memos on Trumps thinking and policymaking.
What is clear from the memos, however, is that Navarro did try – and achieve on some levels – to communicate critical information in a persuasive manner. In particular, his memo from February 23rd is exemplary policy writing:
To start, he puts the bottom line upfront. Unlike storytelling, or academic writing, good policy writing comes right out and says what is wrong and what needs to be done. Navarro does this: The first sentence of the memo warns of the upcoming pandemic and the projected loss of life; the second sentence calls for $3 billion for “prevention, treatment, inoculation and diagnostics.” The memo has no traditional introduction, no build up. Navarro cannot miss the opportunity to explain his main points, and he does it well and with little words.
Therefore, Navarro’s writing is concise, using only the minimum amount of words to get his points across. In a fast-paced world, where the President was worrying about the trade deal with China and tensions with Iran, among other competing, attention-grabbing policy items, memos must be concise in order to break through the noise. Sentences should be as short as they can as often as they can. Same for paragraphs. Each of Navarro’s paragraphs are 1-3 sentences long, no more. It was a wise choice.
Despite writing so short, Navarro finds ways to actively use his voice, which you can hear jumping from the page. While some organizations require policy-wonky style, deep analysis and description, with little author tone, there are critical policy pieces that require strong voice. To persuade, to create urgency, it helps for the audience to hear from the writer. Navarro does not shy away, and uses capital letters for emphasis: “We CAN develop a vaccine and treatment therapeutics in half the usual time. We MUST get appropriate protective gear and point of care diagnostics.” It’s as if he’s speaking directly to the audience, urging them to act on what is possible.
Building on Navarro’s use of voice and tone, he uses narrative, idiom, and comparison to simplify points. To urge the administration away from political fights, he argues that “this is NOT a time for penny pinching or horse trading on the Hill.” And Navarro does this, cleverly, by appealing to what he knows about President Trump and connecting to his audience. He urges the administration by speaking for them: “We move in Trump Time to solve problems. We always skate to where the puck might be – in this case a full blown pandemic.” This narrative aims to engrave an aggressive frame into the administration’s response at a time when others were simply hoping for the best.
Navarro is not afraid to speak on behalf of a Task Force that he is not a part of: “Any member of the Task Force who wants to be cautious about appropriating funds for a crisis that could inflict trillions of dollars in economic damage and take millions of lives has come to the wrong administration.” His tone is assertive based on his fears and concerns.
And lastly, he writes broadly – not only to the Covid-19 Task Force, but also to the Chief of Staff (and hopefully Trump himself) and the NSA. He is inclusive of stakeholders and multiple audiences, rather than exclusive. Policy change happens in broad space, and therefore good policy writing considers who needs to be included.
While outside of the Task Force, Navarro tries to spark urgency, by using simple language. He creates a connection to the Trump mission through voice and narrative. His opinions are on his sleeve, as should be in a time of crisis. Even if we can’t be sure of the impact of Navarro’s memos, or what would have happened if in fact Trump had read them, we certainly can’t blame Navarro’s writing.