White House asserts privilege to withhold citizenship question documents

House Oversight Democrats to vote later Wednesday on contempt resolution

Attorney General Bill Barr testifies in May during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Justice Department on Wednesday asserted executive privilege over documents tied to the probe into the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 census, as the House Oversight and Reform Committee neared a vote to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt.

Chairman Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland, said he would hold the vote on contempt later in the day to allow members of the panel time to read the administration's responses. Democrats claim the question would suppress noncitizen participation and be used to draw Republican-favored maps, despite the administration’s argument that it is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Cummings, at a committee business meeting, argued that Congress “must protect the integrity of the census” from potential interference and the administration’s resistance “begs the question, what is being hidden?”

Democrats pointed to the recent revelation in litigation over the citizenship question that plaintiffs contend shows a deceased conservative gerrymandering expert was a potential source of the question. Those documents, they say, show the expert intended to use the data from the citizenship question to draw maps based only on citizen population, favoring Republicans.

[It’s not just the citizenship question. 2020 census faces other woes]

The Justice Department in a letter Wednesday reiterated the argument that the panel sought protected documents, including internal communications, and said President Donald Trump had exerted executive privilege over the rest of the documents in the subpoenas.

“Unfortunately, rather than allowing the Department to complete its document production, you have chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote,” the letter said.

Similarly the Commerce Department criticized the committee’s decision to move forward with the vote in a letter Wednesday, though it said it was ready to produce more documents.

This is a developing story. 

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