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Former Trump adviser Navarro goes to trial on contempt of Congress

Wrangling continues over mentioning executive privilege

Former White House adviser Peter Navarro goes to trial after failing to persuade a judge that he could use executive privilege to refuse to testify to the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6, 2021 Attack on the Capitol.
Former White House adviser Peter Navarro goes to trial after failing to persuade a judge that he could use executive privilege to refuse to testify to the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6, 2021 Attack on the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Peter Navarro, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, is set to face a federal jury this week in a rare trial on contempt-of-Congress charges, related to his refusal to comply with a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled last week that Navarro couldn’t claim executive privilege for his actions, setting the stage for jury selection to begin Tuesday for a trial expected to last a few days. Lawyers continue to argue over what mention, if any, either side can make of executive privilege during the trial.

Navarro, who faces up to a year in prison over each of two counts if convicted, has spent more than a year attempting to use executive privilege to dodge the prosecution. 

Navarro testified at an Aug. 28 hearing before Mehta, seeking to use claims that Trump invoked executive privilege as a defense against the charges. After another hearing on Aug. 30, Navarro criticized the “partisan nature” of the prosecution against him and media coverage of the case in a statement to reporters.

“Focus on the constitutional issues, the separation of powers issues, that are important to this,” Navarro said.

There has only been one other contempt-of-Congress prosecution in the last decade. A federal jury found former Trump adviser Steve Bannon guilty on two counts last year, also over his refusal to comply with a subpoena from the Jan. 6 select committee.

Navarro’s prosecution grew out of his refusal to cooperate with a February 2022 subpoena for documents and testimony from the select committee, which disbanded in January 2023 after releasing its final report. Navarro, who published a book about his time in the Trump White House, told the panel he wouldn’t comply with the subpoena because Trump had invoked executive privilege over his testimony.

The House, then controlled by Democrats, voted to refer Navarro and several other recalcitrant witnesses for contempt charges last year. The Biden administration indicted only Navarro and Bannon.

Bannon has appealed his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where it is set for argument in October.

Navarro’s trial has been on hold for months while both sides wrangled over the claims of executive privilege. Mehta ruled in January that Navarro couldn’t claim executive privilege to jettison the case entirely.

During a hearing last week, Mehta ruled that Navarro couldn’t use his claims of executive privilege as a formal defense in the case, according to a filing from his attorneys Tuesday.

The executive privilege issue will likely continue to bubble up throughout the trial. Navarro’s attorney said in Tuesday’s filing that their client’s assertion of executive privilege shouldn’t be used against him at trial now that it can no longer be used as a defense.

Prosecutors have argued throughout the case that after issuing the subpoena, the House committee staff attempted to negotiate with Navarro to allow him to testify without revealing information subject to privilege. Navarro refused, and prosecutors said he shouldn’t now be able to avoid the consequences.

Since the Aug. 30 hearing the government has proposed jury instructions that would state that Navarro’s beliefs about executive privilege don’t constitute a defense in the case.

“As I will instruct you at the conclusion of the trial, it is not a defense to contempt of Congress that the Defendant did not comply with the subpoena because of his understanding or belief of what the law required or allowed, or because of his understanding or belief that a legal privilege, such as executive privilege, excused him from complying,” the proposed jury instructions said.

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