WASHINGTON CNN –
The federal judge overseeing the criminal case against Peter Navarro for contempt of Congress on Monday called his defense arguments “pretty weak sauce,” creating last-minute uncertainty over how the former Donald Trump aide might defend himself at his upcoming trial.
Navarro, Trump’s former trade adviser, testified in his defense Monday during a key preliminary hearing in his case. He faces charges for defying subpoenas from the House Special Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, alleging he did so because Trump asserted leadership privileges on the matter .
But during the nearly three-hour hearing before US District Judge Amit P. Mehta in Washington, DC, the judge expressed extreme skepticism about Navarro’s testimony, noting that it came 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 Feb. 20, 2022 call in which Navarro said it was made clear that the former president was referring to the privilege of leadership. “I have no words from the former president.”
“That’s a pretty weak sauce,” the judge added, this time referencing a comment Navarro allegedly made to him from Trump about his regret at not letting him testify. The comment was used by Navarro and his team to support their argument that Trump was in fact invoking privilege because his later regrets suggested so.
“The record is barren, there’s nothing here, even according to your client,” Mehta told Woodward.
Woodward said during a hearing earlier this month that Trump is unlikely to testify on Navarro’s behalf, potentially undermining an important defense.
The lack of testimony from Trump could mean Navarro, who has pleaded not guilty, has no direct evidence that he acted on orders from the former president when he refused to testify and turn the paperwork over to Congress.
The lack of direct evidence that Trump had at times ordered him not to comply with the subpoena seemed to frustrate even his own legal team during Monday’s hearing.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that we wish more of President Trump was here,” Woodward told Mehta.
However, he later added, “I don’t think this detracts from the presumption of privilege communicated to Navarro by Trump.”
The judge said he would make a decision later this week on whether Navarro’s testimony could be used at his trial next month.
Navarro’s criminal case is due to appear in court next month.
During his testimony Monday, Navarro said that in discussions with Trump after the committee’s subpoena was issued on Feb. 9, 2022, the former president made it clear that he did not want Navarro to cooperate with the committee.
“During that call, it was clear that the privilege was being exercised — quite clear,” Navarro once said, referring to a call he said took place on February 20, 2022.
“There was no doubt that the privilege was exercised from the start – not at all,” he later added.
The Navarro case could be a major test of Congressional authority and the reach of the presidency. The trial would follow a jury’s conviction last year of another former Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, on the same charges. Bannon is appealing.
Navarro told reporters after the hearing that it was a “very important case of constitutional separation of powers.”
“And I think as his case progresses, it’s going to be important to get some of those issues legally resolved,” he said.
Navarro also urged people to donate to his legal defense fund, saying the case “has already cost over half a million dollars.”
Navarro stood with his arms crossed throughout the hearing, including as he answered questions from the attorneys. As he left the witness stand, he paced near the table where his legal team was seated and became irritated with the prosecutor as they began cross-examination, prompting the judge to give him directions as he should behave during the interrogation this part of his testimony.
Part of the hearing revolved around a disagreement between the two sides over how to include written testimony from a key defense witness – Trump’s adviser Liz Harrington – who was previously scheduled to testify in person at Monday’s hearing.
Navarro’s team wants the government to agree to a so-called clause that would allow written testimonies that both sides agree to be accurate to be placed on the file. But prosecutors declined the move, instead suggesting that she file an affidavit that could later be compared with her testimony before the grand jury in the case.
“At the very least, we want to keep the file open” so that Harrington can testify, Woodward told Mehta.