The House Oversight Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress on Wednesday for defying the panel’s subpoenas for documents about the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The vote came hours after President Donald Trump moved to block Congress’ access to the subpoenaed documents by asserting executive privilege.
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Trump issued the broad privilege claim at the urging of the Justice Department on Wednesday morning as the committee was beginning contempt proceedings against Barr and Ross for not complying with the panel’s subpoenas, which were issued in April.
“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 to House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
“Regrettably, you have made these assertions necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote,” Boyd added.
Boyd’s letter came just minutes before the committee convened to vote on civil and criminal contempt citations for Barr and Ross. Talks between the Justice Department and the committee broke down late Tuesday night after both sides exchanged last-minute offers that would have staved off the contempt votes.
“This begs the question: What is being hidden?” Cummings said. “This does not appear to be an effort to engage in good faith negotiations or accommodations. Instead, it appears to be another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’ constitutionally mandated responsibilities.”
In a blistering statement after the contempt vote, Ross slammed Democrats for their “shameless, weekly attacks” on the Trump administration.
“The Democrats have continued to attack this administration on dubious grounds, and they aren’t going to let the facts get in the way of their own concocted stories,” Ross said. “By holding a contempt vote, the committee has already demonstrated its scorn for the Constitution, continually refusing to engage in the constitutionally-mandated accommodation process. That is far more serious than the empty stunt the committee performed today.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the committee’s vote “undermines Congress’ credibility with the American people,” citing the department’s “good-faith cooperation” and its disclosure of 17,000 pages of documents to the panel.
Cummings offered to postpone Wednesday’s votes if the Justice and Commerce departments agreed to turn over a small batch of specific documents. But a spokeswoman for Cummings said the Trump administration did not accept that offer. “Despite more than two months since we issued the subpoenas and more than a week since we told the agencies we were moving to contempt, the agencies have made no commitment or counteroffer regarding any of the critical documents in our subpoenas,” she said.
But Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the committee’s top Republican, said Cummings’ decision was a “misuse of the committee’s contempt authority” and “another act of political theater.” He also argued that the citizenship question is a necessary and fair addition to the census.
Last month, the Justice Department moved to block the House Judiciary Committee’s access to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report and its underlying evidence, urging Trump to assert executive privilege over the report just before the committee voted to hold Barr in contempt for defying the panel’s subpoena.
The contempt votes against Barr and Ross came a day after the full House voted to empower committee chiefs to sue the Trump administration in federal court to enforce their subpoenas. Democrats are expected to take the administration to court on several matters, including the census, Mueller’s grand jury evidence and Trump’s personal and business tax returns.
The committee launched an investigation into the origins of the citizenship question earlier this year; Democrats claim it was added to boost Republicans in future elections.
Democrats have accused Ross of lying about how the citizenship question was added to the census, in particular after new evidence emerged recently that highlighted the role of a now-deceased Republican gerrymandering expert who argued that adding such a question to the census would cause congressional districts to be redrawn in ways that help Republicans.
“I want to know why this question was magically added after we have seen that a political operative knew and detailed an intent to intimidate racial and immigrant communities for a partisan purpose,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said.
The Trump administration has said it made the decision in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. Republicans have said the contempt proceedings are premature while the Supreme Court considers the issue, and on Wednesday the president defended citizenship question.
“I think when you have a census and you are not allowed to talk about whether or not somebody is a citizen or not, that doesn’t sound so good to me,” Trump said. “I think it is totally ridiculous we would have a census without asking, but the Supreme Court is going to be ruling on it soon.”
Sarah Ferris and Anita Kumar contributed to this story.