The White House tried to block former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach from testifying to the House Oversight and Reform Committee about his conversations with President Donald Trump about adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, according to a new letter released Friday.
“Mr. Kobach’s conversations with the president and with senior White House advisers who advise the president are confidential, and [Kobach] would not be permitted to discuss those conversations during a transcribed interview,” Deputy White House Counsel Michael Purpura wrote to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s chairman, on May 21.
Story Continued Below
The Democrat-led committee has faced resistance from the Trump administration as it seeks to investigate how a citizenship question was added to the 2020 census — one that Democrats say was intended to boost Republicans’ electoral prospects.
The effort exacerbates the conflict between the White House and House Democrats, who have sought to use their broad oversight powers to investigate the president’s administration and personal finances.
Kobach appeared before the committee on Monday, the panel’s Democrats said, but he largely adhered to the White House’s directives that he was forbidden from discussing “the substance of any conversations he had with the president or senior White House advisers about official government matters.” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote a follow-up letter to Cummings on the day of Kobach’s interview, reiterating that Kobach’s conversations with Trump and other White House officials “fall squarely within the scope of executive privilege.”
The committee will soon go to court over the issue; Democrats plan to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress next week for defying subpoenas for additional documents.
In a memo released Friday, the Democratic side of the committee said the White House “interfered directly and aggressively” to prevent Kobach from answering specific questions about his White House communications, and said claims of executive privilege cannot apply to individuals who never worked in the executive branch.
The committee’s Democrats wrote in their memo that Trump’s claim of executive privilege represented “a vast departure from previous precedent” and said it amounted to obstruction of the committee’s oversight responsibilities.
“These aggressive efforts by the White House to block Mr. Kobach from cooperating with the committee raise significant new questions about what the Trump administration is concealing—and why,” Cummings said in a statement.
During his Monday interview with the panel, Kobach refused 15 times to answer questions about his discussions with Trump or White House officials, according to the memo. Kobach, an early Trump supporter, has advocated for restrictive immigration policies.
Democrats have accused Ross of lying about the origins of the citizenship question. New evidence emerged last week detailing the role of a now-deceased Republican gerrymandering expert, Thomas Hofeller, who had argued that adding a citizenship question to the census would prompt the re-drawing of congressional districts in a way that boosts Republicans in future elections. The Justice Department has said it “never heard of” Hofeller’s work when senior official John Gore directed the Commerce Department to add the question to the 2020 census.
In the memo issued Friday, Democrats said the committee obtained documents showing that Kobach had conversations with Ross and other administration officials, including former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, about the citizenship question.
Ross has said publicly that the addition of the citizenship question was part of an effort to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act, and that the Justice Department made that decision. Congressional Republicans and administration officials have said Democrats’ efforts to obtain information about the census while the issue is being litigated at the Supreme Court is improper.
The Republican side of the panel sharply criticized Cummings’ characterization of Kobach’s testimony, accusing them of “cherry-picking facts to push a false narrative.”
“Kris Kobach’s testimony shows that he was a peripheral and inconsequential player in the decision-making process and that the Department of Commerce did not rely on Kobach in making its decision,” a GOP spokeswoman said.
In seeking to block Kobach’s testimony, the White House lawyers repeatedly cited 2007 Justice Department guidance that determined advice from outsiders could still be subject to executive privilege, since it’s important for presidents and their aides to be able to solicit confidential information form experts. Cipollone said the 2007 guidance relies on “longstanding legal precedent,” which he said forms the basis of the White House’s current argument.
But in the case that the 2007 guidance relies upon — a 1997 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals’ D.C. Circuit — the judges explicitly concluded that their ruling would have no bearing on congressional demands for information.
“[W]e underscore our opinion should not be read as in any way affecting the scope of the privilege in the congressional-executive context, the arena where conflict over the privilege of confidentiality arises most frequently,” the judges wrote. “[W]e take no position on how the institutional needs of Congress and the president should be balanced.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.