House Democrats move to hold Attorney General Barr and Commerce Secretary Ross in contempt

"The Trump administration has been engaged in one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate"

By Shira Tarlo

Published June 4, 2019 11:21AM (EDT)

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; Attorney General William Barr (Getty/Salon)
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; Attorney General William Barr (Getty/Salon)

House Democrats are moving to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for defying a congressional subpoena seeking information about the White House's efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., on Monday announced the move in separate letters to both members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet.

"Unfortunately, your actions are part of a pattern," the Maryland Democrat wrote. "The Trump administration has been engaged in one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate, extending from the White House to multiple federal agencies and departments of the government and across numerous investigations."

Cummings indicated he would consider postponing the contempt votes, which have not yet been scheduled, if Barr and Ross turn over the requested documents to the committee by Thursday.

If the panel officially schedules a contempt vote, it would be the second such vote held against the attorney general. The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines last month to hold Barr in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena to provide lawmakers with an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Ross has turned down requests from the panel to testify about the citizenship question.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee first issued the subpoenas in April, as part of its investigation into the origins of the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the next census.

The committee has also authorized subpoenas for John Gore, the principal deputy assistant for the Justice Department's civil rights division. Gore appeared before the committee behind closed doors in March, although he refused to answer specific questions from lawmakers about his role in the Trump administration's efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, prompting Cummings to issue the subpoena to compel him to respond to the unanswered questions. Barr directed Gore not to comply with the subpoena for his testimony after the panel declined to allow a Justice Department attorney to be in the room with Gore.

In the letters, Cummings pointed to new evidence filed in court last week by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which claims the citizenship question was added at the urging of Thomas Hofeller, a now-deceased GOP redistricting expert who argued that adding such a question to the census would be "advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites" by prompting a redrawing of certain congressional districts. The ACLU also alleged the language Hofeller drafted was used in a Justice Department memo requesting the question be included on the census.

The Justice Department has denied those allegations, describing the ACLU's claims as a last-minute campaign to derail the Supreme Court's consideration of the citizenship question. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has argued that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow it to better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The ACLU has disputed those characterizations.

In his letter, Cummings pointed out that new evidence suggests the true reason the White House sought to add the citizenship question was "to gerrymander congressional districts in overtly racist, partisan and unconstitutional ways."

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, noted that the Supreme Court was already hearing arguments over the 2020 census and claimed Cummings' move was "a reckless and transparent attempt" to interfere with that litigation.

"Chairman Cummings' interest in the census is entirely about scoring political points, not conducting meaningful oversight," Jordan said in a statement. "The Democrats' desperation to affect the outcome of the case raises the question: why don't they want to know how many American citizens are in the United States of America?"

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Commerce Department said in a statement that the agency has "worked in good faith with the committee" and has already turned over nearly 14,000 pages of documents about the citizenship question.

"The Committee has taken this extraordinary step to compel production of documents protected by longstanding and well-settled privileges, including the government's right to protect confidential attorney-client and deliberative communications, which has been upheld in court," the spokesperson said. "To any objective observer, it is abundantly clear that the committee's intent is not to find facts but to desperately and improperly influence the Supreme Court with mere insinuations and conspiracy theories."

Three federal judges already ruled this year to block the Trump administration from adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census, but the Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments for the Justice Department's appeal of the decision. The high court's conservative majority signaled during oral arguments earlier this year that they would rule in favor of including the question.

Shira Tarlo

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