By Mimi Nguyen Ly
Former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro has declined a plea offer to plead guilty to a contempt of Congress charge, the lead federal prosecutor in the case told a judge on Friday.
Navarro had pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts of contempt of Congress on June 17 after he refused to cooperate with the House January 6 committee’s probe into the breach of the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.
He cited executive privilege due to his former position at the White House under the Trump administration. But Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the Jan. 6 committee, rejected his claims of executive privilege, and the committee voted in late March to advance criminal charges against Navarro.
A grand jury indicted Navarro on June 3 on two counts: one for his refusal to produce the documents the committee requested, and the other for his refusal to comply with the committee’s subpoena to show up and testify. Each count carries a maximum of one-year imprisonment.
At a status hearing on July 15, federal prosecutor Elizabeth Aloi told U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta that the Justice Department had offered to let Navarro plead guilty to a single count instead of the two he was indicted with.
Prosecutors also said the deal would mean they would not have sought more than the minimum 30-day jail time.
But the deal would have required Navarro to “comply with the January 6 committee subpoena to the satisfaction of the Justice Department,” Aloi said.
Navarro attended the hearing with two defense attorneys. He had been representing himself before he was indicted on the criminal charges.
“It’s a complicated constitutional case involving separation of powers,” John Irving, one of the defense attorneys, told reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing.
“It involves not only the President of the United States asserting his executive privilege, but also over 50 years of DOJ opinions that make it clear that top presidential aides are able to assert absolute immunity and not testify before Congress. Not only that, but also the Justice Department has longstanding policies about not prosecuting someone criminally for this kind of situation,” he added. “So I wonder what changed.”
John Rowley, another defense attorney, told reporters: “This is the first time in our nation’s 250-year history that a senior adviser to a president has been criminally charged for refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena.
“In essence, this is a dispute between the Office of the President and Congress, and Mr. Navarro was placed on the horn of the dilemma—either to follow the executive direction or risk prosecution.”
Trump’s attorneys have previously argued that former White House officials shouldn’t comply with congressional subpoenas because the requested information is protected by Trump’s executive privilege.
Navarro’s trial is set for Nov. 17.
Judge Expresses Concern Over Treatment of Navarro
Mehta, an Obama appointee, said at the hearing that he was concerned about how Navarro was treated by the government.
Navarro was arrested on June 3 at Reagan National Airport by the FBI as he prepared to board a flight to Nashville, and was hand-cuffed even though he had been in touch with the FBI previously and lives across the street from the FBI’s office in Washington, D.C. He was later taken into custody by agents from the U.S. Marshals service.
At the time, Navarro said that he was denied a call to a lawyer, which prosecutors have denied. The former White House adviser also said he wasn’t informed that he needed to turn himself in before he was arrested.
“It is curious to me, at a minimum, why the government treated Mr. Navarro’s arrest the way it did,” Mehta said on July 15. “It is a federal crime, but it is not a violent crime.”
“It’s surprising that self-surrender was not offered as an opportunity,” he added.
Navarro is the second former Trump adviser charged for refusing to cooperate with the Jan. 6 committee. The first was Steve Bannon, who faces a similar set of two contempt charges. Bannon’s case goes to trial on July 18.
Navarro in December 2020 released a report that alleged widespread election irregularities. At the time, he said the findings of the report suggest there was “a coordinated strategy” to “strategically game the election process” against Trump. Navarro released the report in his capacity as a private citizen, and had called on journalists and U.S. politicians to acknowledge the irregularities in the 2020 election and carry out investigations. Trump later praised the report.
Thompson had cited the report among other references in announcing in February the Jan. 6 committee’s subpoena to Navarro.
“Mr. Navarro appears to have information directly relevant to the Select Committee’s investigation into the causes of the January 6th attack on the Capitol,” Thompson said at the time, alleging that Navarro “hasn’t been shy about his role in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and has even discussed the former President’s support for those plans.”
Joseph Lord and Reuters contributed to this report.