President Donald Trump on Wednesday asserted executive privilege over information related to his administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census as the House Oversight Committee prepared to hold two of his Cabinet members in contempt for defying its subpoenas on the issue.
The Justice Department announced Trump’s move in a letter to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., as the panel was preparing to vote on a resolution on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for withholding documents on the issue.
The resolution would allow Democrats to pursue both civil and criminal contempt charges against Barr and Ross for defying subpoenas issued by Cummings on April 2 to produce the documents. Democratic leadership and House counsel would then decide which avenue to pursue.
“What we have learned in this investigation is quite disturbing,” Cummings said in his opening remarks, stating that the committee obtained evidence that Ross was “aggressively pressing his staff” to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census months before the DOJ made the request to include it, and that Ross did so at the urging of the White House.
Cummings said the administration has claimed that it has supplied 17,000 pages of documents on the issue to the committee.
“This is true, but the vast majority of these documents were already public; others were heavily redacted,” he said.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., a member of the committee, said lawmakers should not vote on a contempt resolution until the public gets a clear understanding of why Democratic lawmakers oppose adding the question.
“The American people need to know what’s going on here,” Hice said. “Democrats simply don’t want to have a citizenship question, and it is important for us to ask why. We know that that question cannot be used for immigration enforcement. It cannot be used for deportation. These types of things are in federal law. So the question is, why do the Democrats not want to know how many citizens are in this country?
Those who oppose adding the question say it would likely suppress the response rate in immigrant communities, leading to an undercount. The administration, meanwhile, has argued that including the question would help it to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
To take action in criminal contempt, the House would need to hold a full floor vote. For civil contempt, Democrats would seek authorization from a bipartisan group of House leaders, in which Democrats hold the majority, to file a lawsuit to enforce the committee’s subpoenas.