President Donald Trump on Wednesday moved to block Congress’ access to documents about how a citizenship question was added to the 2020 census.
Trump claimed executive privilege over subpoenaed documents at the urging of the Justice Department, as the House Oversight and Reform Committee was beginning proceedings Wednesday morning to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with the panel’s subpoenas, which the committee issued in April.
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“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 and Reform Committee 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’s constitutionally mandated responsibilities.”
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, adding: “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 counter-offer regarding any of the critical documents in our subpoenas.”
Last month, the Justice Department moved to block the House Judiciary Committee’s access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report and all of its underlying evidence, urging Trump to assert executive privilege over the report just before the committee was voting 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 chairs 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 earlier this year into the origins of the citizenship question, with Democrats claiming that it was added to the census in order 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,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
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 is considering the issue.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Ross has been “harassed” by Democrats.
“I understand the oversight responsibility, but this looks like overreach to Americans,” Conway added.
Sarah Ferris and Anita Kumar contributed to this story.