Commerce Secretary Grilled on Citizenship Census Question

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Accusing him of misleading Congress and withholding key documents, House Democrats on Thursday tore into Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“Mr. Secretary, you lied to Congress, you misled the American people and you are complicit in the Trump administration’s intent to suppress the growing political power of the non-white population,” Representative Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said Thursday. “You have already done great harm to census 2020 and you have zero credibility and you should, in my opinion, resign.”

The decision to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census has been the subject of a string of congressional hearings and multiple lawsuits, including a case that is now pending before the Supreme Court. Critics of the question say it will decrease participation in the census among immigrants, leading to political underrepresentation and decreased federal funding.

A federal judge in January found the Trump administration violated federal law when adding the citizenship question, with a judge in California finding the question unconstitutional earlier this month. The New York case is currently before the Supreme Court, which fast-tracked the dispute and has scheduled oral arguments for April.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee pressed Ross for hours on Thursday over his contention that his department added the question at the Justice Department’s instruction. They presented Ross with emails and other documents they said indicated Ross was interested in the question long before the Justice Department officially asked that the question be added in December 2017 so it could better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Democrats repeatedly cited one email from May 2017 in which Ross said he was “mystified” that there had been no action taken on his “months-old request” related to the citizenship question. They said the email was evidence that the Commerce Department was merely using the Justice Department’s request as a pretext.

Ross disputed this characterization of the email, however, saying he had merely asked his staff about whether the Justice Department was ever going to make a formal request to add the question.

“I had been seeking to get clarification of what was the interest, if any, of the Department of Justice in the question,” Ross said Thursday.

Ross similarly downplayed other documents lawmakers cited, while also saying he could not remember the context of certain conversations or the content of various documents they referenced.

Of particular frustration for Democrats was one memo a Justice Department official told lawmakers in closed-door testimony was hand-delivered to him by the Commerce Department’s general counsel in fall 2017.

Ross told the committee he did not know why the memo was hand-delivered to the Justice Department, but Democrats were frustrated by his lack of recall and their inability to see the document.

“We need your full commitment, with these specific communications that we’ll get cooperation to get the facts, otherwise it’s hard for us not to conclude that you’re at the very least obfuscating your role and what you said in front of this committee,” Representative Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., said.

Democrats generally complained that Ross and others within the Trump administration have dodged questions and refused to provide documents on the motivations behind the controversial question.

“The key question we will ask Secretary Ross today is what was he hiding from the Congress, what’s the real reason that the Trump administration wanted to add this unconstitutional citizenship question,” Representative Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the committee, said Thursday.

Republicans called the hearing a stunt meant to skirt a Supreme Court order blocking Ross’ deposition in the New York case. Representative Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said it would be appropriate for the committee to ask Ross questions after the Supreme Court’s final opinion comes down, but that doing so now could improperly influence the case. “I’ve spent a little bit of time in trial court, I’ve spent a little time in front of appellate court judges and to think that this isn’t going to come up in oral arguments is absolutely folly,” Armstrong said Thursday. “I’m assuming all the lawyers on both sides of this case have actually taken appellate advocacy and anything that’s being done here today under oath is going to be more than free game in front of oral arguments.”

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