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Former Trump adviser Peter Navarro charged with contempt of Congress

Justice Department declined to pursue charges against former chief of staff Mark Meadows who also defied Jan. 6 committee subpoena.

Peter Navarro in 2020. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
9 min

Former Trump White House official Peter Navarro has been indicted on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress after refusing to comply with a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Justice Department announced Friday ahead of the first televised public hearings of the panel next week. The development was a boon to the committee, threatening criminal consequences for a former Trump aide who defied them. But at the same time, the Justice Department revealed it would not prosecute two other high ranking aides who had been referred for contempt: former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and communications chief Daniel Scavino Jr.

Navarro, who was a trade adviser to President Donald Trump, revealed he also received a grand jury subpoena as part of a related Justice Department probe in a lawsuit he filed Tuesday against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the bipartisan House committee. Navarro, 72, is charged with one contempt count involving his refusal to appear for a deposition and another involving his refusal to produce documents to the committee, according to a seven-page indictment returned Thursday and unsealed Friday.

Navarro is the second former Trump adviser to face criminal charges in connection with rebuffing the committee, and his charges mirror those sought by the House and filed by federal prosecutors in November against former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, after he too refused the committee requests.

Both Navarro and Bannon were indicted by a grand jury in Washington, a rare move by the Justice Department to escalate the consequences of a dispute involving Congress by bringing criminal charges. But the indictment against Navarro came the same day the Justice Department told lawyers for the House that it would not pursue charges against Meadows Scavino. The House had voted to hold Meadows and Scavino in criminal contempt of Congress for also defying a subpoena issued by the bipartisan committee, referring charges to the Justice Department.

In a letter to House General Counsel Douglas Letter, reported earlier by the New York Times, U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves wrote that after each of the four referrals was analyzed “individually, based on the facts and circumstances of the alleged contempt,” his office had decided not to bring cases against Meadows and Scavino. He said he considered the matter “complete” and wrote, “My office will not be initiating prosecutions for criminal contempt, as requested in the referrals, against Messrs. Meadows and Scavino.”

At an initial appearance Friday afternoon in federal court in Washington, Navarro accused prosecutors and the FBI of misconduct, suggesting that the timing of his lawsuit and the charges against him were part of a race to the courthouse. Navarro did not enter a plea, and said he would seek to postpone his June 17 arraignment and criminal proceedings until his civil suit is resolved, potentially running out the clock on efforts by the committee this year.

Navarro called the indictment a “preemptive strike” by prosecutors to sidestep his challenge to the legitimacy of the committee and invocation of executive privilege, although he could also move to dismiss charges on those grounds. He said that while he spoke with an FBI agent and wrote a letter to a prosecutor as recently as Wednesday, he was given no notice that he would be arrested until he was pulled off an airplane Friday morning by federal agents at an airport near Washington, where he was departing for an evening television appearance in Nashville.

“This is not the way America is supposed to function. No American should be treated the way I was treated today,” Navarro told the judge, before going in front of television cameras outside the courthouse and likening the charges against him and the manner of his arrest to actions taken by authoritarian governments, “Stalinist Russia, the Chinese Communist Party” and “terrorists.”

Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui released Navarro on personal recognizance on standard conditions that he notify the court before travel, adding, “If the government has acted improperly,” the judge assigned to the criminal case “will hold their feet to the fire and make sure there are consequences.”

Prosecutors Amanda Vaughn and Elizabeth Aloi were not asked to address Navarro’s claims and left the courtroom without comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Columbia declined to comment on Navarro’s allegations, and an FBI Washington Field Office spokeswoman said she could not confirm the circumstances of his arrest.

The House investigative panel on Feb. 9 subpoenaed Navarro, who has written and discussed the effort to develop a strategy to delay or overturn certification of the 2020 election. In a letter accompanying the subpoena, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the select committee, cited news reports that the former Trump trade and manufacturing policy adviser “worked with Steve Bannon and others to develop and implement a plan to delay Congress’s certification of, and ultimately change the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.”

Trump adviser Peter Navarro published a book in which he unveiled the plan to keep Trump in office. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

The letter cited a recent book by Navarro, in which he detailed a plan he called “The Green Bay Sweep,” which he described as the “last best chance to snatch a stolen election from the Democrats’ jaws of deceit.” The subpoena also described a report by Navarro released online that repeated “many claims of purported fraud in the election that have been discredited.”

With the public hearings of the panel starting June 9, the indictment might not produce tangible results in time for the final select committee report due before the November midterms. A criminal conviction for contempt of Congress can result in a fine and up to a year of imprisonment, but it does not compel an individual to talk. Legal analysts said Congress could sue to try to effect that result, hoping a judge would hold Navarro in civil contempt and jail him until he cooperated.

Prosecutors alleged that Navarro did not communicate at all with the committee after receiving the subpoena. The day after the Feb. 23 deadline for documents had passed, Navarro emailed in reply to a reminder from the committee, stating in part, “President Trump has invoked Executive Privilege in this matter,” and “Accordingly my hands are tied,” according to the indictment. When the committee said several topics did not raise executive privilege concerns, Navarro replied on Feb. 28, saying that the privilege “is not mine to waive” and the committee must directly negotiate the matter with Trump and his attorneys, prosecutors said.

Lawmakers on the Jan. 6 committee had publicly and privately expressed frustrations with the delay in Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decision process, particularly with regards to Meadows, whom the House voted to hold in contempt in December of last year. Lawmakers and investigators on the committee have come to view Meadows as a central figure in Trump’s bid to overturn the results of the election and have previously expressed concern that Garland’s delay in acting on their contempt referrals would hamstring their work.

But Meadows and Scavino had privilege claims that some analysts considered much more plausible, because of their positions in the administration. Meadows also, for a time, cooperated with the committee. “The result speaks for itself,” Meadows attorney George Terwilliger said of the Justice Department letter Friday saying it will not pursue charges. Presidents generally have sought to protect current and former aides from having to testify before Congress, and the Justice Department has in recent history refused to bring criminal cases against current and former officials after contempt findings from Congress.

In 2008, for instance, the Justice Department rebuffed charges against President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, who had resisted subpoenas over the controversial forced resignations of U.S. attorneys during their tenure. In 2012, the Justice Department declined to pursue a contempt prosecution against sitting Attorney General Eric Holder, who refused to turn over some documents about the “fast and furious” scandal, a gunrunning sting gone wrong. Bannon, who has pleaded not guilty, is not set for trial until July.

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In a court notice Thursday, the U.S. district judge assigned to the case, Randolph Moss, directed Navarro to file any challenge to the grand jury subpoena under seal to Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell of the District of Columbia in compliance with court rules. Moss also told Navarro to amend his lawsuit to make clear the basis for any other claims, such as those challenging the legitimacy of the select committee or the authority of Biden to waive executive privilege invoked by his predecessor.

Navarro, who filed the lawsuit on his own without a lawyer, agreed to be represented by an assistant federal defender for his initial appearance Friday but said he would need more time to weigh how he wanted to be represented for the remainder of his case. Navarro said he served honorably as a senior government official for four years, saving “hundreds of thousands of people’s lives” and jobs, and was being treated punitively by “a partisan Congress, a partisan White House, and a Justice Department that does not read its own” prior legal opinions regarding executive privilege and testimonial immunity.

Rosalind Helderman, Felicia Sonmez and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.