WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. House committee voted on Wednesday in favor of holding two of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers in contempt of Congress for defying congressional subpoenas related to an effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census.
By a 24-15 bipartisan vote, the House Oversight Committee recommended the full House of Representatives find Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt. For Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official, it was the second time a House panel had made such a recommendation against him.
Trump earlier in the day asserted executive privilege to keep under wraps documents related to his administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, defying a subpoena from the committee, chaired by Democrat Elijah Cummings.
“The president’s assertion does not change the fact that the attorney general and the secretary of commerce are sadly in contempt,” Cummings said during a nearly seven-hour meeting of the Democratic-led investigative panel.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement that the committee was playing “political games” and that the agency had tried for months to accommodate the committee’s demands for documents. Ross called the vote an “empty stunt.”
Trump, a Republican, and Democrats in control of the House are locked in a political battle over the legislature’s power to hold the executive to account. Trump and members of his inner circle have repeatedly ignored official demands and requests from Congress for documents and testimony.
Traditionally, executive privilege has only rarely been invoked by presidents to keep other branches of government from getting access to certain internal executive branch information. Trump last month also invoked it to block a House panel from getting an unredacted copy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy.
Contempt of Congress is an offense that can be enforced in several ways. So far, House Democrats have moved toward bringing federal court actions in which they would ask a judge to enforce compliance with congressional subpoenas by imposing daily fines on defendants or even arrest and imprisonment.
The House Judiciary Committee on May 8 voted to recommend a contempt citation against Barr over his refusal to comply with the subpoena seeking the unredacted Mueller report.
Democrats on the Oversight Committee were joined in supporting the contempt citations for Barr and Ross by Republican Representative Justin Amash, who is also the sole House Republican to call Trump’s behavior “impeachable.”
The fight over adding a citizenship question to the census presents high stakes for both Trump’s fellow Republicans and the Democrats, with the 2020 U.S. elections looming.
Asked about the issue, Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday: “When you have a census and you’re not allowed to talk about whether or not somebody’s a citizen or not, that doesn’t sound so good to me... It’s totally ridiculous that we would have a census without asking.”
Democrats said during the Oversight Committee meeting that the issue deserved closer scrutiny.
“Is it really about citizenship? No. It’s about reducing the number of people of color being counted in the census. That’s exactly what it’s about,” Representative Rashida Tlaib said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is due to rule by the end of this month on the administration’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that blocked the addition of the question as a violation of federal law. The judge’s ruling came in a lawsuit by a group of states and immigrant rights organizations arguing that including a citizenship question would scare immigrants and Latinos away from participating in the national population count, which takes place every ten years.
Groups challenging the citizenship question on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to delay ruling on the case so that newly uncovered evidence they allege shows how the administration concealed its true motives can be assessed.
Critics have said Republicans want to engineer a deliberate population undercount in Democratic-leaning areas where many immigrants live in order to gain seats in the House. The census count is used to allot seats in the House and to guide distribution of billions of dollars of federal funds.
The Oversight Committee is looking into how the Trump administration devised its plan to add the citizenship question. The committee has said that Ross, whose department runs the census, told the panel that he added the question “solely” at the request of the Justice Department.
However, committee Democrats have said documents show Ross “began a secret campaign” to add the question shortly after taking office and months before being formally asked to do so by the Justice Department.
The committee has said that documents and testimony also showed that discussions about the matter between Ross and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach were “orchestrated” by Steve Bannon, a conservative former close adviser to Trump.
Representative Jim Jordan, the Oversight Committee’s top Republican, accused Democrats of trying to influence the Supreme Court’s pending ruling with the contempt charge. Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch called the accusation “absolutely ridiculous.”
Citizenship has not been asked of all households since the 1950 census, featuring only on questionnaires sent to a smaller subset of the population.
At the meeting, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said of the census: “This determines who is here (in Congress). This determines who has power in the United States of America.”
Reporting by Mark Hosenball, Jan Wolfe, Steve Holland, Makini Brice, David Morgan, Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Will Dunham, Rosalba O'Brien and Sonya Hepinstall