The Justice and Commerce departments on Thursday rejected House Democratic demands for more documents about the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, likely leading to contempt citations for Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
In a letter to Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said the documents the panel subpoenaed are protected by attorney-client privilege and therefore cannot be disclosed.
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“[T]he committee’s insistence that the department immediately turn over these documents … is improper,” Boyd wrote, adding that the Justice Department has already turned over tens of thousands of documents and made officials available for interviews.
A Commerce Department spokesperson accused the committee of trying to interfere with ongoing litigation that centers on the constitutionality of the citizenship question appearing on the census.
“In its zeal to influence the Supreme Court’s decision, the committee is poised to hold Secretary Ross in contempt,” the spokesperson said. “Holding the secretary in contempt is an empty stunt, and it shows that the committee is simply interested in playing politics.”
The Democrat-led committee gave both the Justice Department and the Commerce Department until 5 p.m. on Thursday to comply with its subpoenas, threatening to initiate contempt proceedings absent compliance.
A spokeswoman for Cummings did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The committee has been investigating the decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, with lawmakers accusing the Trump administration — Ross in particular — of lying about its origins.
New evidence emerged last week that the administration allegedly “concealed” the role of now-deceased Republican gerrymandering expert Thomas Hofeller, who believed that adding a citizenship question to the census would boost Republicans in future elections.
The Trump administration has said it is simply trying to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but Democrats have argued that such a question would create an under-count of ethnic and racial minorities, resulting in newly drawn congressional districts that would diminish their influence in American elections.
Cummings said this week that the Trump administration was seeking “to gerrymander congressional districts in overtly racist, partisan, and unconstitutional ways,” and he accused the Trump administration of a “cover-up.” Republicans on the committee have said that holding Barr and Ross in contempt is an effort to improperly interfere with ongoing court proceedings about the census question.
The subpoenas, which were first authorized in April, required the Justice and Commerce departments to turn over all communications with the White House, the Republican National Committee, and President Donald Trump’s campaign, among other entities. The subpoenas also sought memos and witness testimony.
One of those witnesses, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore, refused to answer lawmakers’ specific questions about his role in drafting a DOJ memo requesting the addition of a citizenship question, and he later skipped a scheduled deposition with the committee.
In a statement, the Justice Department said Gore had “never heard of” Hofeller’s work, and added that it “played no role in the department’s December 2017 request to reinstate a citizenship question.”
Barr is expected to be formally held in contempt of Congress in a separate matter on Tuesday, when the House is scheduled to vote on a contempt citation for his refusal to turn over former special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report and underlying evidence, allowing the House Judiciary Committee to enforce its subpoena in federal court.
The contempt resolution will also allow other committees to enforce their subpoenas without requiring a full House vote.