Trump Officials Barr & Ross to Face Contempt Vote in Census Probe

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 2, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott
Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said Friday he will forge ahead with contempt proceedings for the leaders of the Justice and Commerce departments as part of the probe into their manipulation of the 2020 census.

“We gave Attorney General Barr and Secretary Ross every opportunity to produce the documents the committee needs for our investigation but rather than cooperate, they have decided to that they would rather be held in contempt,” Cummings said in a statement Friday.

The chairman’s relentless search for documents has only strengthened since new details emerged last week indicating that Trump administration officials perjured themselves about what motivated the Commerce Department to add a citizenship question to the once-a-decade survey.

Though experts predict that undocumented immigrants will feel too threatened by the question to complete the survey, leading to an undercount, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross maintains that he added the question at the request of the Department of Justice to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Last week, however, groups challenging the addition of the question in New York published documents showing that the now-deceased Republican strategist and gerrymandering expert Thomas Hofeller may have had a role in seeing the question added. 

Hofeller, the records show, believed that by adding a citizenship question to the census, it would give a redistricting advantage to Republican and non-Hispanic white voters. Because federal funding and congressional representation are tied to census figures, an undercount of Latinos or other minorities could harm Democratic politics for a decade to come.

Trump administration officials have dismissed any allegations of impropriety or wrongdoing with the addition of the question, and it is unclear whether the new evidence will affect an imminent decision from the Supreme Court about whether the question can be added. 

Late Thursday, the Department of Justice issued a letter that said it would be “premature” for the committee to schedule a contempt vote.

“The department has made eight submissions to the committee in its ongoing, rolling document production totaling more than 17,000 pages … the department has also identified tens of thousands more responsive pages that it is in the process of producing,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote.

The documents Cummings seeks are largely emails and memorandum shared between the White House, President Donald Trump’s campaign team and the Republican National Committee. In particular, the committee wants to review a secret memo passed from the former Commerce Secretary James Uthmeier to Principal Deputy Attorney General John Gore.

Democrats believe the memo could reveal insight into precisely how and when officials decided to include the citizenship question on the 2020 census. Additionally, Attorney General William Barr has instructed Gore not to appear before the House Oversight Committee for testimony – unless he is accompanied by Justice Department counsel.

Cummings has requested testimony without counsel present, but assistant attorney general Boyd has said such a hearing would run afoul of the Executive Branch’s privilege and the U.S. Constitution.

“As we indicated then and we reiterate now, the department is willing to make Mr. Gore available for the required deposition (or another transcribed interview) if the committee permits agency counsel to accompany Mr. Gore,” Boyd wrote (parentheses in original).

Boyd said the draft memorandum from a Commerce Department attorney to Gore, as well as all draft letters to the Census Bureau, are protected under attorney-client privilege as well.

The Oversight Committee’s contempt vote is now expected to be held next week, the same week the House Judiciary Committee plans to hold Attorney General Barr in contempt for failing to provide an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to Congress.

Cummings said Friday that, while Commerce and Justice Department officials claim they have acted reasonably to accommodate congressional requests, the assertion is undercut by their actions.

“They claim that fighting witness interviews for months under threat of subpoena is evidence of good faith accommodations process, they suggest that Secretary Ross’ refusal to meet demonstrates that the Department is eager to continue its cooperation with the committee and they argue that withholding every single one of the key unredacted documents we subpoenaed somehow proves that there is no information to hide,” Cumming said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

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