The House is set to vote Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for failing to provide documents related to the Trump administration’s efforts to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 Census, further escalating tensions between Democrats and the White House over congressional oversight.
After a string of legal defeats, President Donald Trump last week abruptly retreated from his efforts to add the question to the census, announcing that he will instead order federal agencies to provide the Commerce Department with records on the numbers of citizens and noncitizens in the country.
But lawmakers continue to demand answers about the motivations behind the administration’s 19-month effort to ask about citizenship status on the decennial survey. In May, new evidence emerged suggesting that the question was crafted specifically to give an electoral advantage to Republicans and whites. The Trump administration has said it needs the information to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
In an interview Wednesday morning on Fox Business Network, Ross dismissed the planned vote in the House as “just more political theater” and defended his department’s response to the House Oversight Committee’s inquiry.
“We produced to the committee over 14,000 pages of documents,” Ross said. “What’s an issue here is about a dozen documents, roughly 15 pages, all of which the courts didn’t find necessary to make their conclusion.”
In April, the Oversight Committee authorized its chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., to issue subpoenas for a deposition of John Gore, principal deputy assistant attorney general, and to Barr and Ross for documents related to the 2020 Census decision. But the Justice Department said it would not comply with the subpoena for Gore to testify about the question, and the administration has vowed to stonewall all House subpoenas.
Ross maintained Wednesday that the administration will push ahead on gathering citizenship data through other means.
“Well, I think it’s just gamesmanship on their part,” he said of the continued opposition by Democrats. “They know we’re going to come much closer to the answer than we ever have before, because with the president’s executive order, we’re having much better access to federal documents than we ever had before.”
Trump’s order came after the Supreme Court ruled that the administration cannot move forward on adding the question without providing a solid justification for its plan.
Wednesday’s vote is only the latest attempt by House Democrats to hold the Trump administration accountable to congressional oversight. Last month, the House voted to seek court enforcement of subpoenas for Barr and former White House counsel Donald McGahn.
A move by the House to hold a sitting attorney general in contempt of Congress is rare but not unprecedented: In 2012, the Republican-led House voted to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over his failure to provide material in the probe of Operation Fast and Furious, a federal government program targeting gun trafficking by Mexican cartels.