Trump Invokes Executive Privilege Over Census Documents, Blocking Their Release

The House Oversight Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt.

President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over internal Justice and Commerce department documents detailing how a citizenship question was added to the 2020 census

The House Oversight and Reform Committee voted 24-15 on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt over their refusal to comply with subpoenas for information. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) voted with Democrats to hold the two Trump administration officials in contempt. The contempt citation will now go to the full House for approval.

In a statement, Ross brushed off the vote and accused Democrats of playing politics.

“Today, the Democrats maintained their shameless, weekly attacks on this Administration without consideration for the truth. I don’t even think members of Congress can keep track of which committee is holding a show trial on any given day,” he said. “No matter how much the Department and I cooperate and provide information, the Committee will always twist the facts to suit their own ends.”

The Justice Department threatened earlier this week that they would ask Trump to invoke executive privilege if the committee moved forward with a contempt vote. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee chairman, offered to postpone the vote if the agencies produced certain documents responsive to the subpoenas.

The Justice Department did not accept the offer and instead informed Cummings on Wednesday that Trump was invoking executive privilege. Trump specifically was invoking privilege over emails between Commerce Department and Justice Department officials before the Justice Department formally requested the addition of a citizenship question to the census. Trump also asserted privilege over drafts of the Justice Department’s official December 2017 request as well as a “protective assertion” over all the documents. 

The Justice Department formally requested a citizenship question because it said it needed better citizenship data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Many Democrats and civil rights groups say that is a pretext ― the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and the decennial census, which goes out to every American household, hasn’t asked about citizenship since 1950. Emails produced in litigation challenging the question show Ross was interested in adding the question long before the Justice Department made its request. Ross solicited the Justice Department to make the request for the citizenship question.

The House Oversight Committee is investigating whether the Trump administration lied about the reason it was adding the citizenship question. Democrats also believe Ross misled and may have even lied to Congress about the way the question was added to the census.

In opening remarks Wednesday, Cummings dismissed the Justice Department’s claims that it had already been forthcoming with the committee. Although the department had produced over 17,000 documents, Cummings said, many of those were already publicly available, heavily redacted, and not responsive to a subpoena.

“This begs the question: What is being hidden?” he said.

It “defies logic” to suggest that the Justice Department didn’t cooperate with the committee, said Kerri Kupec a DOJ spokeswoman.

“Today’s action by Chairman Cummings and his Committee undermines Congress’s credibility with the American people. The Department of Justice has tirelessly worked for months to accommodate the Committee’s requests for information, including producing over 17,000 pages of documents and making senior Department officials available for questioning,” she said in a statement.

The Supreme Court is set to rule on whether the Trump administration lawfully added the question by the end of the month. Republicans on the committee asked Cummings to hold off on the contempt vote until the Supreme Court ruled.

This article has been updated with a statement from the Justice Department.