Peter Navarro, a White House aide to then-President Donald Trump who claimed credit for devising a plan to overturn the 2020 election, was sentenced to four months in prison Thursday morning for ignoring a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
“Dr. Navarro, you are not a victim. You are not the object of a political prosecution,” U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta said. While Navarro received all due process that he and all Americans are entitled to, Mehta continued, “Regrettably, when you were called up to go to testify, you didn’t show a coequal branch of government [Congress] the same degree of respect.”
Navarro became the second senior Trump aide sentenced for stonewalling Congress’s Jan. 6 investigation, joining Stephen K. Bannon, a former Trump political adviser with whom Navarro said he worked on a plan to delay and ultimately change the outcome of Congress’s formal count of the 2020 presidential election results.
Like Navarro, Bannon also was sentenced to four months behind bars, and both men have appealed their convictions. Navarro asked the court to put his sentence on hold pending appeal as Bannon’s judge did, which Mehta is considering. Either man could become the first person incarcerated for defying a congressional subpoena in more than half a century, under a rarely prosecuted offense punishable by up to a year in prison.
Navarro was also ordered to pay a $9,500 fine.
Navarro, 74, was found guilty in September of two counts of criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to produce documents or testify after receiving a House subpoena in February 2022. Lawmakers had asked Navarro, a former trade and pandemic adviser who served throughout Trump’s term in office, about his claim of working with Bannon on an operation called “the Green Bay Sweep.” The plan aimed to get Trump loyalists in Congress to contest ballots from six swing states that Biden won and throw the election to the House, though claims of voter fraud were repudiated by state officials and the courts.
Prosecutors accused Navarro of pursuing a bad-faith strategy of “utter contempt” and “utter disregard” for Congress, putting allegiance to Trump and partisan politics over country in refusing to cooperate with House investigators probing the Jan. 6 attack that came after Trump urged his supporters to march to the Capitol. Five people died in or shortly after the rioting, which led to assaults on least 140 police officers, caused $3 million in damage and forced the evacuation of lawmakers.
“The committee was investigating an attack on the very foundations of our democracy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb Jr. told the judge, urging him to make clear that “no one is above” the rule of law that is essential to a functioning democracy and to sentence Navarro to six months in prison. “It is imperative for the court to make it clear that people cannot defy Congress and ignore their legal obligations.”
Navarro’s attorneys asked for probation, saying the judge at one point seemed to acknowledge that Navarro genuinely thought Trump had invoked executive privilege, a provision under the Constitution’s separation-of-powers principle to preserve the confidentiality of White House discussions from Congress.
Mehta ultimately rejected Navarro’s claim, finding after an evidentiary hearing that whatever Navarro thought, he failed to prove the existence of a conversation or a formal invocation of privilege by Trump that directed Navarro not to cooperate with lawmakers.
“I did not know what to do” when subpoenaed by Congress, Navarro told Mehta in a brief statement after his defense initially said he would not speak on advice of counsel.
“Is that the entire lesson from this process? … Get a lawyer? I think in a way it is,” Navarro said, in between making public appeals outside the courthouse for funds to help pay what he said were already nearly $1 million in legal bills. “Nobody in my position should be put in conflict between the legislative branch and the executive branch.”
Defense attorneys Stanley E. Woodward Jr., John P. Rowley III and John S. Irving argued that the case raised a serious and novel question about whether Navarro properly invoked executive privilege, with Woodward calling Thursday’s sentencing a “pit stop” on the way to higher court review.
“Dr. Navarro’s trial and conviction involves a series of firsts: the first time an incumbent President waived the executive privilege of a former president; the first time a senior presidential adviser was charged with contempt of Congress by the Justice Department, let alone the Justice Department of a political rival,” his attorneys wrote to the court.
Before charging Navarro, a Harvard-trained economist and author of several books on U.S.-China trade policies, the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington opted not to take legal action against two other Trump officials who were referred by the House Jan. 6 committee for contempt prosecutions: former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and communications chief Dan Scavino. Both had received letters from a lawyer for the former president directing them not to respond to subpoenas from the committee, citing executive privilege.
Had Trump issued a similar letter to Navarro, “the record here would look very different,” Mehta said earlier. The judge noted that the Biden administration also had made clear it was not asserting the privilege in his case, saying it was not in the national interest.
Mehta called Navarro’s protestation of ignorance hard to believe, because two months before he got his subpoena, Bannon was charged with snubbing the House without a letter from Trump. Navarro’s attorneys also knew from experience with past clients that the words “executive privilege” are not “magical incantations” or “a get-out-of-jail-free card,” but require working with Congress question-by-question to resolve, the judge said.
“It’s not just [writing] ’executive privilege’ by email, ‘Go away,’ ” Mehta said.
Prosecutors argued that Navarro, acting without an attorney, rebuffed the committee’s request and erroneously relied on a news statement issued by then-President Donald Trump in November 2020 that said Navarro did not have to cooperate with a different committee investigating the pandemic response.