Peter Navarro heads to trial with gutted defense and mounting bills
With former president Donald Trump now accused of 91 felonies in four historic indictments, the legal woes of his erstwhile senior trade adviser, Peter Navarro, have been reduced to a prosecutorial sideshow.
Yet the 74-year-old economist, still a loud proponent of the “stolen election” falsehoods of his ex-boss, remains noteworthy in this sense: After right-wing provocateur Stephen K. Bannon was convicted last summer of contempt of Congress, Navarro on Tuesday is set to become the second top official in Trump’s White House to face a criminal trial related to a scheme to undo President Biden’s 2020 victory at the polls.
And Navarro, who has pleaded not guilty, said it is costing him plenty. “My legal bills just went up by another half-million dollars,” he said last week as he departed the federal courthouse in Washington, having failed in his last-ditch attempt to have the case against him thrown out.
Such is the price of defying a congressional subpoena if the flouting leads to an indictment, as it did for Navarro. He is charged with two misdemeanor counts of contempt, each punishable by up to a year behind bars, for refusing to provide testimony and documents to the since disbanded House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Bannon, convicted of the same offenses in July 2022, was sentenced to four months in prison. He is free pending the outcome of his appeal.
In media interviews and a 2021 memoir, Navarro has detailed what he said were his and Bannon’s roles in a convoluted (many call it corrupt) effort to keep Trump in power by delaying and ultimately halting the formal count of electoral votes in Congress.
Before its televised hearings last year, the select committee wanted to know more about the plan, which, according to Navarro, had required Republicans to carry out a tortuous series of legislative machinations to reverse Trump’s defeat. It was a “peaceful” strategy (many call it harebrained) that failed, Navarro said, only because mobs of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, disrupting the endeavor.
Clad in a dark blue suit and scuffed black sneakers, Navarro, who is almost always loquacious when news cameras are around, strode to a gaggle of journalists outside the Elijah Barrett Prettyman Courthouse. Before holding forth on his case, he wanted to mention “for anybody watching this right now” the address of his defense fund’s website.
He slowly enunciated it, twice. “By the time the trial finishes, I expect those legal fees to hit $750,000,” he continued. Rarely given to understatement, Navarro cast his legal fight with the Justice Department as an epic constitutional battle over “the separation of powers between the legislative branch and the executive branch,” which “is probably going to the Supreme Court.”
He has said he declined to cooperate with the bipartisan committee because Trump, even though he was no longer president, broadly invoked executive privilege in conversations with him, instructing Navarro not to testify about matters the House committee was examining.
In a blow to Navarro, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta voiced skepticism about the purported conversations, which are uncorroborated, and ruled last week that Navarro cannot raise executive privilege as a defense at his trial. The decision stripped him of his strongest argument for an acquittal. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday, and while his attorneys prepare for it, the meter is running.
“Do I look like a rich man?” said Navarro, a longtime academic with hawkish views on China trade who joined the Trump administration at its outset and stayed until the tumultuous end. As photographers squatted and snapped, he clutched the lapels of his pinstriped jacket and held it open. “This is the same suit I wore in 2017 going into the White House, okay?”
Behind him, shuffling ever closer, a 38-year-old heckler who goes by “Anarchy Princess” waved a poster-size placard declaring, “TRUMP LOST (And you know it!).” When the sign brushed Navarro’s shoulders, he stopped talking, spun to his left and tried grabbing it — but Anarchy Princess wouldn’t let go. “Bro,” she scolded him, “you’re already facing charges! Go ahead and commit another crime!” Navarro, with a wooden smile, turned back to the microphones. “Here’s the thing,” he said, “if you look at the partisan nature of what’s —”
“Trump lost! Trump to prison!” Anarchy Princess interrupted.
“— the partisan nature of what’s going on, you can understand the partisan nature of …” He put it this way: “It’s the use and abuse of our legal system to punish political rivals. And one of the ways they try to do that is, they try to put you in prison, which they’re trying to do with me. But it’s also to bankrupt you, okay?”
The scheme that Navarro has described, which he said Bannon dubbed the “Green Bay Sweep,” a football reference to an end run, called for dragging out the process of formally counting electoral votes in a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump loyalists in the House and Senate would contest the ballots from six swing states that Biden won. Each challenge would prompt four hours of debate, resulting in a nationally televised, 24-hour spectacle.
The goal was to pressure Vice President Pence, who was presiding over the joint session, to throw up his hands in uncertainty and return the electoral votes to the states.
Eventually, after further arcane maneuvering, according to the plan, the House would wind up choosing the next president — but not with a straight-up vote by all 435 members. Each state delegation would cast a single vote to decide the election. And while Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the chamber, the GOP controlled a majority of delegations.
The “Green Bay Sweep” was ‘our last, best chance to snatch a stolen election from the Democrats’ jaws of deceit,” Navarro wrote in his memoir, “In Trump Time: A Journal of America’s Plague Year.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said: “All it required was peace and calm on Capitol Hill for it to unfold. And then you have two things that went awry.” First came the riot, which halted debate. Then, when the session resumed, there was “Pence’s betrayal,” meaning his refusal to go along with the plan.
Bannon and defense lawyers in his contempt case did not respond to emails seeking comment on Navarro’s account of the intrigues.
In the Rolling Stone interview, published Jan. 3, 2022, Navarro was asked if he had heard from the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack. “I have gotten no communication whatsoever from them,” he said. “It’s my view that they simply do not want to hear anything I have to say, because it is so contrary to their narrative. Their narrative rests on the premise that President Trump wanted to instigate violence to overthrow the election. My premise — which is fact — is that President Trump wanted only peace and calm so that we could meticulously implement the Green Bay Sweep.”
A month after the Rolling Stone interview ran, Navarro received the subpoena that he refused to honor. The select committee, in its final report, would later reject the assertion that Trump wanted peace on the day of the riot. It cited “multipart” efforts to scuttle the election results and concluded that “the central cause of January 6th was one man, former president Donald Trump, who many others followed. None of the events of January 6th would have happened without him.”
Now Navarro must face a jury. “This is so important,” he said outside the courthouse in Washington last week. “You can’t have a Congress, a partisan Congress, that abuses the subpoena process for the purpose of punishing the party that’s out of power, or putting someone in jail, okay?” Taunting him, Anarchy Princess lifted her sign and chanted: “Shame, shame, shame, shame. You love the Proud Boys, huh?”
Like Navarro, Bannon, a Trump political adviser, was barred from using executive privilege as a trial defense. The privilege is meant to protect the confidentiality of discussions between presidents and their close aides. Although Bannon was Trump’s chief White House strategist, he left the administration after seven months, in August 2017, and was a private citizen during the post-election turmoil in 2020 and 2021. His defense was reduced mainly to whether he understood the deadlines for answering the subpoena he received from the Jan. 6 committee. The jurors deliberated for just 2½ hours before convicting him.
Hoping to avoid being similarly hamstrung, Navarro, to no avail, asked Judge Mehta to allow an executive-privilege defense in his case. On the witness stand at an Aug. 28 pretrial hearing, he described his purported conversations with Trump. But he had nothing in writing from the former president, and Trump has not said publicly whether he invoked the privilege. “Pretty weak sauce,” Mehta said of the testimony.
So is Navarro bound for prison?
“Well,” he said with a cryptic grin, “why don’t you come” to the trial? “All will be revealed.”