Court Battles

5 takeaways from Peter Navarro’s contempt trial

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys for former Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro rested their case Wednesday in a trial involving charges of contempt of Congress after Navarro refused to cooperate with the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6.

The first count facing Navarro pertains to his failure to turn over documents related to the committee’s probe, and the second relates to his failure to appear for a deposition before the panel’s investigators. He has pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors argued to District Judge Amit P. Mehta that Navarro’s noncompliance prevented the committee from obtaining information relevant to their investigation. 

“Congress believed Navarro had information about what happened on Jan. 6, more specifically on why it happened,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb said in opening arguments. 

But defense attorneys said prosecutors did not meet their burden of proof, comparing the government’s case to a movie trailer containing all the best parts of the movie — leaving “nothing” of substance for the movie itself.

“The preview for the movie, evidence will show, is better than the movie actually will be,” Navarro attorney Stan Woodward said in opening remarks. 

Here are five takeaways from the first day of Navarro’s contempt of Congress trial.

A restless Navarro

Navarro stood for the entirety of Wednesday’s proceeding, which lasted six hours, aside from breaks. 

Typically, defendants sit at a table next to their attorneys throughout the trial, sometimes passing notes or leaning over to confer with their counsel.  

But Navarro stood off to the side throughout the first day. He sometimes paced around his corner of the courtroom or shifted from one leg to another. He switched between wringing his hands and crossing his arms as the trial went on. 

When one witness identified Navarro for the record, the former Trump aide raised two fingers to his forehead and saluted him. 

At several points during the trial, Navarro walked over to Woodward, one of his attorneys, and whispered in his ear before receding to his corner of the courtroom.

Closing arguments will be made Thursday morning before the case goes to a jury for deliberation.

Executive privilege takes centerstage

The government showed emails between Navarro and Daniel George, senior investigative counsel for the House Jan. 6 committee, as part of its case. In the emails, Navarro told George that former President Trump had invoked executive privilege and suggested the committee reach out to the former president on the issue, not him. 

“Accordingly, my hands are tied,” Navarro wrote in the emails. 

Woodward argued the committee never reached out to Trump, implying that Navarro’s failure to comply with the subpoena therefore was not “willful.” On cross-examination, George admitted his team did not reach out to Trump’s team, but it said Trump’s team did not reach out to the committee either.

Last week, Mehta ruled that Navarro’s attorneys could not argue that Trump invoked executive privilege preventing Navarro from testifying before the House Jan. 6 committee after they failed to prove the former president had invoked privilege in the first place. 

“There was no formal invocation of executive privilege by [Trump] after personal consideration nor authorization to Mr. Navarro to invoke privilege on his behalf,” Mehta said at the time. 

The decision was a major blow to the former Trump advisor’s defense. 

DOJ: Navarro acted ‘above the law’

The Justice Department began its opening arguments by referencing the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Crabb, the assistant U.S. attorney, noted the “cherished tradition” of peaceful transitions of power he said were nearly broken by a “violent mob” who attempted to stop Congress’s certification of the 2020 election results.

In the attack’s aftermath, the House established a select committee to investigate the attack, a panel primarily comprising Democrats. Prosecutors attempted to show the jury of nine men and five women that Navarro hindered the committee’s work by refusing to comply with its subpoena. 

“How would [the report] have been different with Navarro? Would it have been different?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Aloi asked Mark Harris, a senior investigative counsel for the committee, on the stand. 

Both questions were objected to by the defense — objections Mehta sustained.

Prosecutors maintained that there are four elements they must prove for the jury to render a guilty verdict on both counts: Navarro was subpoenaed, the information the committee wanted from him was pertinent to its investigation, Navarro failed to comply, and his failure to comply was “willful.” 

They called three witnesses Wednesday — all former members of the Jan. 6 committee — to speak to those elements. 

“Our system doesn’t work if people think they are above the law or don’t comply with the law,” Crabb said. “Navarro acted like he was above the law.”

Defense disputes Navarro ‘willfully’ failed to comply 

Woodward, one of Navarro’s attorneys, told the jury much of the trial’s evidence is not in dispute by the defense, including basics like a committee was formed, Navarro was issued a subpoena and he didn’t produce any records or appear for his deposition.

But the defense rebuffs the idea that Navarro intentionally failed to comply with the committee’s subpoena, Woodward said. 

“Evidence in this case will not show that Dr. Navarro was ‘willful’ in his failure to comply,” Woodward said. 

Navarro’s legal team did not put on its case, opting to rest without presenting any witness testimony or evidence.

The Jan. 6 problem

When the jurors left the courtroom for the first break of the day, Mehta addressed the parties and asked whether any other exhibits would include “words like ‘domestic terrorism.’” 

Prosecutors had just introduced a House resolution that established the select committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. The resolution detailed corrective measures the committee might recommend, including measures “to prevent future acts of violence, domestic terrorism, and domestic violent extremism, including acts targeted at American democratic institutions.”

Woodward ripped into government prosecutors, suggesting they were attempting to try a Jan. 6 case, not one regarding contempt of Congress.

The Navarro attorney also represented Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs in his sedition trial last year and said the government used the “same opening” as other prosecutors in the Oath Keepers case — one that detailed how the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next had been disrupted. He implored Mehta, who oversaw the same Oath Keepers case, to rein the government in. 

“[This case] is not about the riot at the Capitol and to repeatedly link Navarro to why that happened is inappropriate,” Woodward said.  

Mehta ultimately decided the government had to present the document to establish why the committee was created in the first place, but he directed prosecutors to inform him if any fiery rhetoric would be detailed to the jury before presenting it. 

“I want to make sure it’s not done in a way that has the potential for inflaming this jury,” Mehta said.