The federal judge overseeing the contempt of Congress case against former Trump White House adviser Peter Navarro expressed concern Friday about the decision by prosecutors to arrest him last month rather than simply summoning him to come to court.
Navarro has complained bitterly about the FBI's tactics in arresting him at Reagan National Airport as he was departing for a speaking engagement in Nashville, Tenn., objecting that he was handcuffed, denied food and water and refused permission to make a phone call to a lawyer. The FBI agents handling the arrest said in an official report that he called them “kind Nazis.”
Navarro faces two misdemeanor contempt of Congress charges for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the special House committee investigating the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 and former President Donald Trump's attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Navarro contends he was following instructions from Trump not to comply to preserve executive privilege.
At a hearing in Navarro's case Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta signaled that he agrees that the treatment of the longtime White House trade adviser at the outset of the criminal case was unreasonably harsh.
“It is curious…at a minimum why the government treated Mr. Navarro's arrest in the way it did,” Mehta said at the session, which Navarro attended along with his two defense attorneys. “It is a federal crime, but it is not a violent crime.”
Mehta, a former federal defender, said it was puzzling that prosecutors didn't just tell Navarro he was going to be charged and allow him to walk into an FBI office, as some white-collar defendants are permitted to do.
“It is a surprise to me that self-surrender was not offered,” the judge said. However, he proposed no particular response and did not demand any explanation from prosecutors.
Prosecutors have previously contended that Navarro made “numerous false statements” about his arrest and that his first request to use the phone that day was not to speak with a lawyer, but to call a TV producer about a scheduled interview.
Navarro attorney John Rowley told the judge Friday that the FBI's treatment of Navarro and the government's decision not to charge two other Trump White House aides who failed to comply with subpoenas, former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, suggested “animus” toward Navarro on the part of the prosecution team. He also said the decisions may have been influenced by President Joe Biden's statement that those who defied the committee should be prosecuted.
Rowley also suggested Navarro had been placed in leg irons by the FBI when he was arrested, but his client clarified after the hearing that the shackles were used by deputy U.S. Marshals when he arrived at the courthouse for his initial appearance last month. The FBI agents “are responsible for those leg irons,” Navarro told reporters.
It also emerged at the hearing Friday that Navarro rejected a plea deal offered by prosecutors in the case, proposing to drop one of the two charges and not seek more than the minimum 30-day jail time.
Rowley told Mehta that the case against Navarro is unprecedented. “This is a case of first impression,” the defense attorney declared.
While most hearings in criminal cases are being held remotely under pandemic-related provisions, Navarro's lawyers told Mehta Friday that Navarro wishes to have his hearings in person.
Former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon faces a jury trial Monday on a similar set of two contempt charges for defying the same committee. However, Bannon was fired from his White House post years before the showdown over the 2020 election and the Capitol riot, while Navarro was still at the White House during that period and prepared a report alleging widespread election fraud.
Navarro's lawyers said the prosecution is at odds with decades of Justice Department legal opinions holding that Congress' power to demand testimony or records from White House officials is sharply limited by executive power concerns.
“This is the first time in our nation's 250-year history that a senior adviser to a president has been criminally charged for refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena,” Rowley said as the defense lawyers and Navarro spoke to reporters outside the courthouse after Friday's hearing.
“The Justice Department…has longstanding policies about not prosecuting someone criminally for this kind of situation, so I wonder, what changed?….and we intend to find out, ” defense attorney John Irving said . He declined to discuss what distinctions he sees with Bannon's case.
Navarro's trial is set for Nov. 17. He faces a maximum possible sentence of a year in prison on each count if convicted.
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