Prison sentence for Trump adviser Navarro gives new teeth to Congress as watchdog over the White House

Former Trump administration trade official Peter Navarro has been sentenced to four months behind bars for contempt of Congress. Navarro had refused to provide the House Jan. 6 committee with information it sought from him. He joins Steve Bannon as the first defendants in decades to be held criminally liable by the U.S. Department of Justice for refusing to provide information in response to congressional subpoenas.

The Supreme Court has long supported Congress’ authority to obtain information needed to carry out its constitutional duties. But weak enforcement tools have made getting that information difficult, especially from the executive branch.

As a former chief counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I view the jury convictions of Bannon and Navarro as reviving the use of criminal proceedings as an enforcement option for Congress, offering a potent tool for holding powerful people accountable if they defy the legislative branch. How often that option will actually be used in the future, however, remains unclear.

The cases

The Bannon and Navarro subpoenas were issued by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.

The subpoenas required both men to testify before the committee and produce documents related to the 2020 presidential election and the January 2021 attack.

But Bannon and Navarro declined to provide any documents or even to appear before the committee as the subpoenas directed. Both claimed they did not have to comply with the subpoenas because, as presidential advisers, they were absolutely immune to congressional orders and because former President Donald Trump had asserted executive privilege over the requested information – which meant they couldn’t produce it to Congress.

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