A House panel voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for withholding documents on plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over the material. The Oversight and Reform Committee’s 24-15 vote Wednesday for the civil contempt resolution gives Democratic Chairman Elijah Cummings the option to file a lawsuit to enforce the panel’s subpoenas for the documents. Republican Mark Meadows of North Carolina warned colleagues their vote was “a significant moment in history” in holding two cabinet-level officials in contempt. Cummings said he didn’t disagree.”Nobody is trying to be harmful to our attorney general. It’s not about him” or the Commerce secretary, said Cummings of Maryland. “It’s about our country.””The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility and the authority to ensure that the census is working as it was intended,” Cummings said. “We must protect the integrity of the census, and we must stand up for Congress’ authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight.”The chairman didn’t disclose when he may file a legal action, saying he’ll consult with Democratic leaders on the next steps.
Ross, in a statement, called the committee’s action “shameless” and said Democrats “aren’t going to let the facts get in the way of their own concocted stories.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement: “The committee’s attempt to define the Department of Justice’s good-faith cooperation as ‘contempt’ defies logic.”
Congressional Democrats are pursuing what they say is evidence that the Trump administration’s bid to include the citizenship question was designed to suppress the response rate to the census of immigrants and non-citizens. That could reduce some states’ number of congressional seats, Electoral College clout and federal funding.
Before the Oversight panel vote, Trump asserted executive privilege over documents concerning plans to add a citizenship question to the census, including the material sought by the Oversight Committee.
“These documents are protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney-client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter Wednesday to Cummings. “In addition, the president has made a protective assertion of executive privilege over the remainder of the subpoenaed documents.”
The move was just the latest effort to stymie and frustrate efforts by House Democrats to investigate actions by the Trump administration.
But the Democratic-controlled House is firing back. The chamber voted Tuesday to authorize a lawsuit against Barr in a separate matter, for refusing to give the Judiciary Committee redacted parts of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The House also approved a speedier process for committee chairmen such as Cummings to file a lawsuit to enforce subpoenas. Under the plan, they would only need to be green-lighted by a panel led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Ross has denied assertions that the citizenship question was inspired by efforts to suppress census participation by immigrants, including those in the country legally, who may tend to vote for Democrats. The underlying issue is now before the Supreme Court.
Trump told reporters at the White House that he feels strongly the census should ask Americans whether they’re citizens.
“That doesn’t sound so good to me” if the question can’t be included, he said Wednesday during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda. “It’s ridiculous, I think it’s totally ridiculous that we would have a census without asking.”
Ross’s role in the 2020 census has come under Democratic scrutiny because he and other Commerce Department officials asserted multiple times that the decision to include the citizenship question stemmed solely from a Justice Department request in December 2017 to aid enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Barr additionally is accused of ordering Justice Department official John Gore to defy a subpoena for his testimony.
The Justice Department said the Oversight Committee abandoned efforts to reach an accommodation by going forward “with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote.”
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, asked why Democrats don’t want to ask about citizenship even though many people think the question already is included in the census.
“Every person you ask will say, ‘yes we should do that,'” Jordan said. Referring to Democrats, he said, “Why don’t they want to know?”
Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York responded that she wants to know why people like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — “with a resume of voter suppression techniques in Kansas” — and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon “have their fingerprints all over the census.”
“I want to know about corruption. That’s what I want to know about — the racism and the very disturbing history that we are seeing here,” she said.
Representative Justin Amash of Ohio was the only Republican who voted to hold Barr and Ross in contempt. Amash, who last month enraged much of his party — and Trump — when he said that the president had engaged in “impeachable conduct” wrote on Twitter: “Fact: Both Democratic and Republican attorneys general are capable of being in contempt of Congress.”
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