Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Navarro’s Nonsense Narrative

Here’s why his account can’t be trusted.
January 5, 2022
Navarro’s Nonsense Narrative
(Photos: Getty Images)

Former Trump White House aide Peter Navarro is on a charm offensive. Its aim: saving his own skin. On December 27, the Daily Beast reported on an interview with him, in which he made a splash by admitting his role, working with Steve Bannon, in trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election. On January 3, Rolling Stone published the edited transcript of its own interview with him. In the interviews, Navarro argued that he and Bannon had a completely legal strategy to delay the vote by having members of Congress object and debate six battleground state certifications for Joe Biden.

“It was a perfect plan,” he told the Daily Beast.

Then came Navarro’s punch line: “And it was all predicated on peace and calm on Capitol Hill. We didn’t even need any protesters because we had more than 100 congressmen committed to it.” Next, Navarro gilded the lily: “The mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol building actually foiled [our] plans, because it incentivized Pence and other Republicans to follow through with certification.”

As Amanda Carpenter summarized Navarro’s argument yesterday in The Bulwark, “He, Bannon, and Trump were in the middle of executing a legal coup, which the violent coup attempt foiled.” Darn those rioters! Their unexpected attempt to “hang Mike Pence” spoiled a perfectly legal coup.

Anyone who, in August 2020, ran out to buy hydroxychloroquine after Navarro’s countless pitches for it, probably also believes the snake-oil story fed to the Daily Beast and Rolling Stone. To those paying close attention, however, his motive seems clear. Navarro knows that the House committee investigating January 6th has collected 30,000 records, likely among them some of his inculpatory communications to and from Bannon and members of Congress. Best to go on the offense with a creative tale admitting he was involved in the day’s events while proposing that violence was the furthest thing from his mind.

Navarro disclosed with pride that Bannon had named their coup plan the “Green Bay Sweep” after one of the Packers’ old power runs around the end behind a crew of beefy blockers, the idea being that the Republican members of Congress objecting to counting the states’ electoral votes would be running interference. But there’s another play in football that is a better fit for Navarro’s charm offensive: the misdirection play.

Alert linebackers, however, keep their eye on the ball. The facts undermine his story about his and Bannon’s perfect and peaceful plan. Navarro says that the idea was that TV attention from the objections of Republican representatives and senators would create pressure on Pence to send the matter to the contested battleground states’ Republican legislatures.

Here’s why that’s not plausible. Pence had already resisted unimaginable pressure from Trump to do just that. On Jan. 6, the vice president had refused Trump’s final arm-twisting to delay the certification. Pence had consulted with his own lawyers. He had consulted with revered outside conservative lawyers like former Judge Michael Luttig, who tweeted out his advice about the limits of the vice president’s role. He had consulted with former Republican Vice President Dan Quayle.

Pence had made up his mind, as he laid out in a “Dear Colleague” letter on the morning of Jan. 6. (However shameful, for his self-interested political purposes, is his minimizing of the insurrection a year later.) By the afternoon of Jan. 6, the only thing left to stop the certification was a violent attack. Trump’s hope in it showed up in his reported joy watching it on television and his three-hour delay in acting to stop it, despite so many pleas from allies for him to do so.

Navarro ranks high among officials from the Trump administration whose words cannot be believed. He told the Daily Beast that his role was to supply Republicans with the evidence of voter fraud that formed “the legal predicate” for the plan. But in a December 2020 analysis of Navarro’s compilation of “evidence”—entitled “This might be the most embarrassing document created by a White House staffer”—the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote that Navarro’s document “throws out as near-certainties things that are unfounded, misrepresented or unimportant.”

His record of fabricating for personal advantage precedes his time in the White House. The New York Times reported that more than a dozen times in his academic books, he falsely quoted a fictitious expert he created, Ron Vara—a play on his own name. (Academics, of course, aren’t supposed to make up sources to confirm their theses, although of course Donald Trump has long had a penchant for doing something similar.)

The rules governing intellectual honesty are not the only ones with which Navarro has played fast and loose. He holds the dubious distinction, along with Kellyanne Conway, of being one of the few federal officials that the Office of Special Counsel has ever found to have knowingly and willfully violated the Hatch Act—the law prohibiting U.S. government employees from partisan campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime. While appearing on TV and in his capacity as director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, and while using his official Twitter account, he attacked Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Before the 2020 election, he also traveled to six swing states with glossy, economy-promoting binders that were “designed to sell the president to residents” there.

So claims by Navarro that he would not violate the law to help Trump win are less than persuasive.

One last point about Navarro’s Daily Beast interview is worth noting. He volunteered that he felt fortunate that “someone” canceled his scheduled appearance to speak at Trump’s Jan. 6 rally. “It was better for me to spend that morning working on the [plan]. . . . It was a pretty mellow morning for me.”

To a skeptical former prosecutor like this one, suspicions immediately arise when someone offers that kind of off-handed, self-sanitizing story placing himself away from a scene potentially related to a crime.

Navarro apparently didn’t name the “someone” who canceled his appearance at the Jan. 6 rally.

Perhaps it was Ron Vara.

Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former Supreme Court advocate, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.