House Democrats investigating Donald Trump’s pandemic response have a new headache caused by ex-trade adviser Peter Navarro, who is refusing to comply with their subpoena because, as he put it, the 45th president gave him a “direct order” to claim executive privilege. Trump appeared to make such a decree last month, noting in a statement that he was instructing his former aide to “protect executive privilege” by not complying with the congressional “Witch Hunt” into his administration’s handling of COVID-19. As it turns out, this is not how claiming executive privilege works. Rep. James Clyburn, the House committee chairman probing Trump’s possible politicization of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, said as much in a letter to Navarro over the weekend. Navarro must comply with requests for documents and other information, Clyburn wrote, and appear for a deposition on December 15. Navarro has “no valid basis for refusing to comply with the subpoena,” he added, noting that Navarro’s refusal “appears to be predicated on a press release” from Trump. As a former president, Trump “does not have ultimate authority to assert executive privilege over the records and information you possess,” Clyburn argued.
Navarro, a close consultant on Trump’s pandemic response and one of the vocal supporters of treating COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment, was subpoenaed by the House after repeatedly refusing to respond to document requests in November. It was clear that Navarro didn’t plan on playing ball with the congressional investigation. In a statement to Politico following the subpoena, Navarro said he planned to deliver “a case of my new book In Trump Time to members of the committee” as his response. But it remained to be seen whether Navarro would actually cite Trump’s statement as justification for his defiance. Clyburn’s letter reveals that he did just that in a letter last week, in which Navarro said he took Trump’s words as a “direct, proper and explicit invocation” of executive privilege. “This matter is out of my hands,” Navarro said, going on to suggest the committee take it up with Trump’s counsel.
Clyburn isn’t having it. “Your blanket refusal to comply with the subpoena in its entirety is improper,” Clyburn wrote in the letter sent Saturday. The lawmaker pointed out that Navarro’s refusal to cooperate is “particularly indefensible” given Navarro himself goes into “abundant detail” about his White House work—including discussions with Trump about the pandemic response—in his recent book and press promoting it. Such public disclosures effectively nullify whatever “privilege that may have been attached” to the private information.
Since convening last year, Clyburn’s panel has for months been interviewing officials who were part of Trump’s pandemic response, according to the Washington Post. The paper notes that congressional investigators have already released documents offering insight into the federal response, widely seen as an abject failure, along with apparent attempts by Trump’s team to interfere in health experts’ work.
Deborah Birx, the White House’s former coronavirus coordinator, in October told congressional investigators that more than 130,000 American lives could have been saved if the administration’s handling of the pandemic had been better. The White House, she said, was “distracted” by the 2020 election and ignored recommendations from public health experts.
The panel is particularly interested in Navarro because, among other reasons, the aforementioned messages obtained by the panel showed the adviser warning Trump—via a private, encrypted email service—of the administration’s unpreparedness to respond to the virus in February 2020. Clyburn has said he believes Navarro may be withholding “extensive communication” between himself and other White House aides that took place on such third-party platforms, according to The Hill. Also piquing the panel’s interest in Navarro are the controversial coronavirus deals he struck to acquire supplies to fight the virus after his initial warning to Trump was ignored.
If Navarro fails to show up for the deposition later this week, the New York Times notes, House Democrats may move to hold Navarro in contempt of Congress, as was the case for fellow Trump adviser Steve Bannon last month after he chose to defy January 6 investigators.
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