The House voted on Wednesday to ask the Justice Department to prosecute Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for defying congressional subpoenas, an escalation in House Democrats’ ongoing oversight battle with the Trump administration.
The vote to hold Barr and Ross in criminal contempt of Congress is largely symbolic, as President Donald Trump’s DOJ will not act on the request.
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But it reflects House Democrats’ frustration over the administration’s defiance of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subpoenas seeking information about failed efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
“I do not take this decision lightly,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the Oversight Committee. “Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter, one that I have done everything in my power to avoid.”
“But in the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying, for the first time in 70 years, to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census,” Cummings added.
Wednesday’s vote was the first time Trump administration officials have been held in criminal contempt of Congress since Democrats took control of the chamber in January and launched investigations into the president’s personal conduct, finances, policies and more.
It also represents only the second time in U.S. history that Congress held a sitting Cabinet official in contempt of Congress. In 2012, former Attorney General Eric Holder became the first after the Republican-led House voted to hold him in contempt for not providing documents on the Operation Fast and Furious gun running investigation.
President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over the subpoenaed documents just minutes before the Oversight panel voted to hold Barr and Ross in contempt. The Justice Department had said it could not legally turn over the documents, citing “the deliberative process” and “attorney-client communications.”
In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Barr and Ross decried Democrats’ move to hold them in criminal contempt.
“We strongly disagree with any suggestion that our departments have obstructed this investigation,” they wrote, adding that their departments have turned over tens of thousands of documents. “It is unfortunate that the House has scheduled a vote to hold two sitting members of the president’s Cabinet in contempt of Congress given the clear record of cooperation.”
Democrats have accused the Trump administration — and Ross in particular — of lying about the origins of the citizenship question, and they uniformly oppose it because they say it would result in an under-count in immigrant-heavy communities.
The Oversight Committee has been investigating the matter, and Cummings on Wednesday accused the Trump administration of a “purposeful effort to obstruct” that probe.
It’s unclear if the House will go to court to enforce the subpoenas. The House general counsel has already filed suit to obtain Trump’s tax returns from the IRS, and Democrats gearing up for court action to enforce the Judiciary Committee’s subpoenas for testimony from ex-Trump aides, including former White House Counsel Don McGahn and former communications director Hope Hicks.
The Supreme Court last month blocked the Commerce Department from adding the controversial question to the census, with the court’s majority arguing that the administration had not given a sufficient justification.
The case centered on efforts by prominent Republican strategists to add the citizenship question because they believed it would help the GOP in future elections by diminishing congressional representation in communities of color. The administration’s stated rationale for the citizenship question was to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. Democrats have said that that argument was simply a “pretext.”
Republican lawmakers have defended the president’s efforts to add such a question to the census, contending that it’s important for the federal government to know how many citizens live in the U.S. They have also accused Democrats of trying to manufacture a crisis to go after the president.
“If the Democrats can’t impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his cabinet in contempt of Congress,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), a member of the Oversight panel. “This is just another episode in political theater.”
After his defeat at the Supreme Court, Trump backed down from the effort, instead issuing an executive order that allows federal agencies to gather citizenship data through other means.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.