Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach discussed adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census with Donald Trump’s advisers during the 2016 presidential campaign, he told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform this week. Kobach also discussed adding the question with Trump and his top advisers, including Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, shortly after the president was inaugurated.
The conversations add additional context to the Trump administration’s controversial decision to add the citizenship question to the upcoming census. Emails made public as part of ongoing litigation show Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was interested in adding the question shortly after he was confirmed in 2017 and aggressively pushed for it after. It is not known what piqued Ross’ interest in adding the question.
The Trump administration says it needs the question on the census so it can better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But critics say that its real intent is to decrease political power in states with large immigrant populations. Ross was interested in adding the question long before the Trump administration offered that rationale in December of 2017, the emails show.
The early discussions with Kobach, known for his anti-immigration views and support for voting restrictions, will likely add additional evidence for those who say the voting rights rationale was a pretext.
Ross and Kobach also spoke directly on the telephone about adding the citizenship question. He also sent him an email recommending that the census ask about immigration status. It was a problem, Kobach wrote, that a count of noncitizens and citizens alike determined how many congressional seats each state got.
During congressional testimony earlier this year, Ross downplayed Kobach’s influence in adding the question. He said he couldn’t control what people sent him over email and noted that he rejected Kobach’s wording of the question. Kobach told the Oversight committee in his interview he didn’t recall Ross flat out rejecting the question.
Kobach, who led Trump’s short-lived voter fraud commission, was limited in what he told the committee because the White House asserted his communications with Trump were “confidential,” even though Kobach was not a White House employee nor did he work for the federal government. The committee said the White House did not have a valid basis for claiming privilege.
The Supreme Court is currently deciding whether the Trump administration violated federal law in the way it went about adding the citizenship question. A ruling is expected by the end of June.