By Sarah N. Lynch and Andrew Goudsward
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former President Donald Trump adviser Peter Navarro arrived at court on Tuesday for a trial on two misdemeanor counts of contempt of Congress, after refusing to testify or provide documents to the U.S. congressional investigation of the 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Navarro, a China hawk who advised Republican Trump on trade issues and also served on the White House COVID-19 task force, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Jury selection will begin on Tuesday in the trial. It is unclear when opening statements will take place.
Upon arriving at court, Navarro said the case was about executive privilege and the constitutional separation of powers. He also made an appeal for donations to his legal defense fund.
“I am the first senior White House adviser ever to be charged with this crime,” he said.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack wanted to ask him about a “Green Bay Sweep” plan to delay Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory that Navarro later detailed in a book he wrote after leaving the White House.
The committee ultimately issued the findings from its investigation in December 2022 without getting the chance to interview Navarro.
Earlier this year, Special Counsel Jack Smith charged Trump criminally for trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat after making false claims of fraud.
Navarro has maintained that his refusal to testify or provide documents demanded by a congressional subpoena was sparked by Trump’s invocation of executive privilege, a legal doctrine that shields certain White House communications from disclosure.
He was not able to get Trump to testify and has only produced one letter written by Trump’s attorney after Navarro’s indictment that claimed Navarro had an obligation to assert privilege.
At a hearing on Aug. 28, Navarro testified that Trump made it “very clear” he should not testify before Congress in a phone call that took place 11 days after he received the committee’s February 2022 subpoena.
He said he relayed this message to the committee.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who will preside over the trial, questioned why Navarro could not articulate precisely what Trump said on the call.
“I still don’t know what the president said,” Mehta said at the hearing, adding that the evidence in support of Navarro’s claims was “pretty weak sauce.”
He ultimately rejected Navarro’s request to cite his phone call as evidence during the trial that Trump invoked privilege, finding Navarro had failed to provide adequate details about the substance of the call.
Mehta also found that even if Navarro believed he was immune from testifying, he still had to appear before the committee in response to the subpoena.
Each contempt count Navarro faces has the potential to a carry a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of one year in jail, as well as a fine of up to $100,000.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who left the White House well before the Jan. 6 attack, was convicted on contempt charges for defying a congressional subpoena before the same committee in July 2022.
He was sentenced to four months in prison in October, but his sentence was stayed pending appeal and has not been resolved.
(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)