WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has asserted executive privilege over documents that were subpoenaed by Congress related to his administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
The claim comes as the House Oversight and Reform Committee considers whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to turn over the subpoenaed documents. A contempt vote by the committee would be an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their House majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of the Trump administration .
In a letter to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the Justice Department asserted that the administration has “engaged in good-faith efforts” to satisfy the committee’s oversight needs and that the planned contempt vote was premature.
Democrats fear the question will reduce census participation in immigrant-heavy communities. They say they want specific documents to determine why Ross added the citizenship question to the 2020 census and contend the administration has declined to provide them despite repeated requests.
The administration has turned over more than 17,000 of pages of documents and Ross testified for nearly seven hours . The Justice Department said two senior officials been interviewed by committee staff and that officials were working to produce tens of thousands of additional pages of relevant documents.
Cummings disputed the Justice Department’s account and said most of the documents turned over to the committee had already been made public.
“We must protect the integrity of the census and we must stand up for Congress’ authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight,” Cummings said.
The administration’s refusal to turn over requested documents “does not appear to be an effort to engage in good-faith negotiations or accommodations,” he said. “Instead, it appears to be another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’ constitutionally mandated responsibilities.”
Trump has pledged to “fight all the subpoenas” issued by Congress and says he won’t work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.
Cummings postponed a planned vote Wednesday morning to allow lawmakers time to read the Justice Department letters.
Ross told the committee the decision in March 2018 to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Cummings disputed that, citing documents unearthed last week suggesting that the real reason the administration sought to add the citizenship question was to help officials gerrymander legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways.
The Supreme Court is considering the citizenship question . A ruling is expected by the end of the month.
“I think it’s totally ridiculous that we would have a census without asking” about citizenship, Trump said Wednesday, “but the Supreme Court is going to be ruling on it soon. I think when the census goes out ... you have the right to ask whether or not somebody is a citizen of the United States.”
Some of the documents the committee is seeking are protected by attorney-client privileges and other confidential processes, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said. The president has made a “protective assertion” of executive privilege so the administration can fully review all of the documents, he added.
“The president, the Department of Justice, has every right to do that,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on MSNBC. Democrats are “asking for documents that are privileged, and I would hope that they can continue to negotiate and speak about what is appropriate and what is not, but the world is watching. This country sees that they’d rather continue to investigate than legislate.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said the administration has thwarted congressional efforts to obtain key documents and exercise legitimate oversight. “All we get from the administration is a middle finger” of defiance, Raskin said. “And that’s not appropriate for the power of Congress.”
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this story.