WASHINGTON – A senior Trump administration official told the House panel probing the government’s coronavirus response that he will not comply with their subpoena, escalating a fight with Democrats investigating the handling of the pandemic.
Peter Navarro, who served as former president Donald Trump’s trade adviser and closely consulted on the White House’s virus strategy, cited a “direct order” from the former president to claim executive privilege, according to a letter released on Saturday by the panel.
“[T]his matter is out of my hands and something that the Sub-Committee should discuss with President Trump’s counsel,” Navarro wrote to the committee on Dec. 7, rejecting their requests to turn over documents and share other information about the White House coronavirus response by their Dec. 8 deadline.
Navarro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The showdown with Navarro is the first time a witness has rebuffed a subpoena issued by the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis amid attacks from Trump and his allies that the probe is politically motivated. The panel in September subpoenaed Steven Hatfill, an adviser to Navarro, who subsequently cooperated.
Failing to comply with a subpoena can put a potential witness in “contempt of Congress,” which can lead to escalating financial penalties and the possibility of jail time. Democrats have given Navarro until Dec. 15 to sit for a deposition and on demanded again on Saturday that he turn over relevant records.
The panel, which was first convened last year, has conducted months of interviews with officials involved in the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, including former senior officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as Nancy Messonnier and Anne Schuchat. Democrats also have released documents and interview transcripts that they say substantiate claims that Trump officials interfered in health experts’ work and mishandled the response.
Navarro has emerged as a focus of the probe because of his role advising Trump – which included warning the president in February 2020 that the administration was unprepared to respond to the virus, according to memos obtained by the panel. The panel is also interested in Navarro’s subsequent oversight of some of the government’s investments in supplies and equipment to fight the pandemic.
Democrats on Saturday said that Navarro was wrong to claim executive privilege – particularly because he had already shared information about the White House response in media interviews, public appearances and his recent memoir.
“Your blanket refusal to comply with the subpoena in its entirety is improper,” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who is leading the probe, wrote to Navarro in a letter shared with The Washington Post.
Clyburn warned that Navarro was putting himself at risk by refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena. “Please be advised that if you do not appear for the deposition as scheduled and produce all responsive documents in your possession by December 15, 2021, the Select Subcommittee will interpret your actions as willful noncompliance with the subpoena,” the lawmaker wrote.
Trump last month issued a statement that Navarro should not comply with a “Witch Hunt” led by “Communist Democrats.”
“I’m telling Peter Navarro to protect executive privilege and not let these unhinged Democrats discredit our great accomplishments,” Trump said in a Nov. 20 statement.
Clyburn said Saturday that Trump did not have “ultimate authority” to determine what was covered through executive privilege, particularly by issuing a “press release” that “raises a number of grievances about his political opponents” but lacks specifics.
Navarro last month told reporters that he would send the panel a copy of his newly published memoir, which he said detailed his role fighting the pandemic. “I will be delivering a case of my new book In Trump Time to the Committee in thanks for their invitation,” Navarro said in a Nov. 18 statement.
The panel has yet to receive a copy of the book, spokesperson Lauren Williams said Saturday.