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Former Trump administration official Peter Navarro is facing yet another uphill court battle after repeatedly ignoring the feds’ demands that he turn over official emails sent from a personal account because prosecutors wouldn’t guarantee him immunity, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Navarro began his work in the Trump White House on the former president’s first day in office, and remained until the last. He spent the first few months of 2017 as deputy assistant to the president and director of the National Trade Council, then was appointed director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. In March 2020, Trump directed Navarro to coordinate the federal government’s use of the Defense Production Act to respond to the spreading COVID-19 outbreak.
Under the Presidential Records Act (PRA), Navarro and all other similarly situated officials are required to preserve all official communications, which are considered the property of the United States, the 52-page lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice explains.
But DOJ lawyers say Navarro did not respond to requests for the material from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at the end of Trump’s term last year, and that the DOJ asked Navarro for the communications again at the beginning of the summer “in an effort to avoid litigation.”
“Discussions with Mr. Navarro’s counsel to secure the return of Presidential records ultimately proved unsuccessful,” the filing states. “Mr. Navarro has refused to return any Presidential records that he retained absent a grant of immunity for the act of returning such documents.”
Reached by phone shortly after the lawsuit hit the public docket, Navarro—who pleaded not guilty in June to a contempt of Congress charge for disregarding a subpoena from House committee investigating the Capitol riot—said he wasn’t aware he was facing additional legal headwinds until being contacted by The Daily Beast.
“I would have to look at the suit first,” Navarro said when asked for comment. “When was it filed?”
A short time later, attorneys John Irving and John Rowley told The Daily Beast in an email: “Mr. Navarro has never refused to provide records to the government. As detailed in our recent letter to the Archives, Mr. Navarro instructed his lawyers to preserve all such records, and he expects the government to follow standard processes in good faith to allow him to produce records. Instead, the government chose to file its lawsuit today.”
During Navarro’s time in the Trump administration, he “used at least one non-official email account—an account hosted by the non-official service ProtonMail—to send and receive messages constituting Presidential records,” the government’s lawsuit says.
“Following the end of the Trump Administration, the Archivist, through the General Counsel of the NARA, attempted to contact Mr. Navarro to secure the Presidential records that Mr. Navarro had not copied to his government email account,” it continues. “Mr. Navarro did not respond to NARA’s communications.”
In June, a lawyer hired by Navarro contacted the DOJ to say an outside firm would be performing a document review to identify which ones fell under the PRA, the filing states.
Over the next several weeks, Navarro’s attorney provided “periodic updates” on the endeavor.
“In order to assist and expedite the search, on July 18, 2022, NARA’s General Counsel provided Mr. Navarro’s counsel with a list of search terms,” the lawsuit says. “NARA requested that Mr. Navarro prioritize the return of any PRA records responsive to those search terms.”
Four days later, Navarro’s attorney told the DOJ that they had turned up more than 1,700 documents under the prioritized search parameters, and that of those, about 200 to 250 of them constituted presidential records.
But on July 29, Navarro’s lawyer sent a letter to the DOJ saying that Navarro was refusing to produce any of the emails without being granted full immunity for anything within.
“Mr. Navarro is wrongfully retaining Presidential records that are the property of the United States, and which constitute part of the permanent historical record of the prior administration,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Navarro’s wrongful retention of Presidential records violates District of Columbia law, federal common law, and the PRA.”
Navarro’s use of private email, after his one-time boss won the presidency in large part by slamming Hillary Clinton for doing the same, first came to light last fall, when the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said it “obtained copies of electronic messages from individuals, other than Mr. Navarro, as part of its investigation into the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
In a Sept. 14 letter, subcommittee chairman Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) told Navarro that he and his colleagues were investigating the Trump administration’s “response to the pandemic and haphazard efforts to obtain critical supplies.”
“As detailed in information released by the Select Subcommittee on March 30, 2021, you were intimately involved in these poorly managed efforts,” the letter says, noting Navarro’s alleged use of “private, encrypted email accounts to conduct White House business.”
The government wants the emails to get to the bottom of “alarming questions about whether you and other Trump Administration officials were attempting to hide information about the federal response to the coronavirus crisis from public view,” the letter continues. “This conduct hampers the ability of the American people to understand the failures that contributed to the tragic loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives and may violate federal law mandating preservation of Presidential records.”
With Wednesday’s lawsuit, the feds will now try to pry loose what Navarro has thus far failed to deliver. Specifically, the filing alleges, Navarro has “unjustly retained property of the United States in the form of Presidential records.”
“Under federal common law, any Presidential records retained by Mr. Navarro should be taken from him and delivered to the United States,” it concludes, “and the United States should be awarded damages in an amount to be determined at trial.”