By Devan Cole | CNN
The federal judge overseeing Peter Navarro’s contempt of Congress criminal case on Monday called his defense arguments “pretty weak sauce,” injecting last-minute uncertainty into how the former Donald Trump adviser will be able to defend himself during his upcoming trial.
Navarro, Trump’s one-time trade adviser, testified Monday in his defense during a key pre-trial hearing in his case. He’s facing charges for defying subpoenas issued to him by the House select committee that investigated the US Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, claiming he did so because Trump asserted executive privilege in the matter.
But during the nearly three-hour hearing before US District Judge Amit P. Mehta in Washington, DC, the judge appeared highly skeptical of Navarro’s testimony, noting it’s from one side of the conversation.
“I still don’t know what the president said,” Mehta told Navarro’s attorney Stanley Woodward, referring to a February 20, 2022, call during which Navarro said it was made clear the former president was invoking executive privilege. “I don’t have any words from the former president.”
“That’s pretty weak sauce,” the judge added, referring this time to a comment Navarro says Trump made to him about regretting not letting him testify. The comment had been used by Navarro and his team to bolster their argument that Trump did invoke privilege because his subsequent regret indicated as much.
“The record is barren, there is nothing here, even after your client’s testimony,” Mehta told Woodward.
Woodward said during a hearing earlier this month that Trump is not expected to testify on behalf of Navarro, potentially undercutting a key defense.
The absence of testimony from Trump could leave Navarro, who has pleaded not guilty, without direct evidence that he was acting at the direction of the former president when he declined to testify and turn over records to Congress.
The lack of direct evidence showing that Trump directed him not to comply with the subpoena at times seem to frustrate even his own legal team during Monday’s hearing.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that we wish there was more here from President Trump,” Woodward told Mehta.
But, he added later, “I don’t believe that diminishes the presumption of privilege” communicated from Trump to Navarro.
The judge said he would make a decision later this week on whether Navarro’s testimony could be used in his trial next month.
Navarro’s criminal case is set to go to trial next month.
‘No question’ privilege was invoked
During his testimony on Monday, Navarro said that in conversations with Trump following the issuance of the committee subpoena on February 9, 2022, the former president made it known that he didn’t want Navarro to cooperate with the committee.
“It was clear during that call that privilege was invoked – very clear,” Navarro said at one point, referring to a call he said took place on February 20, 2022.
“There was no question that the privilege had been invoked from the get-go – none,” he added later.
Test of congressional authority
Navarro’s case may be a major test for congressional authority and the reach of the presidency. The trial would follow the conviction by a jury of another former Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, on the same charges last year. Bannon is appealing.
Navarro after the hearing told reporters it is a “very important case about the constitutional separation of powers.”
“And I think that, as his case proceeds, it’ll be important to do what they call settle the law on some of these questions,” he said.
Navarro also urged people to donate to his legal defense fund, saying the case has “already cost over a half a million dollars.”
Navarro stood for the duration of the hearing with his arms folded, even as he fielded questions from the attorneys. When he was off the stand, he paced back and forth near the table his team of attorneys was seated at, and he became testy with the prosecutor once they began their cross-examination, causing the judge to instruct him on how to conduct himself during that portion of his testimony.
Liz Harrington testimony
Part of the hearing centered on a disagreement between the two sides on how to include written testimony from a key defense witness – Trump aide Liz Harrington – who had previously been set to provide in-person testimony during Monday’s hearing.
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Navarro’s team wants the government to agree to a so-called stipulation, which would allow written testimony that both sides agree is accurate to be submitted into the record. But prosecutors opposed that move, and instead suggested she submit an affidavit that could later be cross-checked with her grand jury testimony in the case.
“We would like, at the very least, to leave the record open” so Harrington can submit her testimony, Woodward told Mehta.