WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday invoked executive privilege to block Congress from obtaining documents about how a citizenship question was added to the 2020 census, ahead of a House committee vote to recommend that two cabinet secretaries be held in contempt of Congress over the matter.
In a letter to the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the Justice Department said that Mr. Trump had decided to invoke his secrecy powers because Mr. Cummings had “chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote.” The letter came just as Mr. Cummings was convening the panel to consider a contempt recommendation for Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
While Mr. Cummings put off the vote for several hours to allow lawmakers to review Mr. Trump’s privilege assertion, he made it clear that he did not intend to back down, escalating the latest battle between the House and the president over the Constitution’s separation of powers.
“We must protect the integrity of the census, and we will stand up for Congress’s authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight,” Mr. Cummings said, calling the privilege claim “another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated responsibilities.”
“This begs the question,” Mr. Cummings added: “What is being hidden?”
At the White House, Mr. Trump defended his administration’s push to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census: “When a census goes out, you should find out whether or not — and you have the right to ask whether — somebody is a citizen of the United States,” he said as he met with Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.
But in an Oversight Committee meeting on Capitol Hill, Democrats demanded to see the deliberations behind the question, and they pointed to Mr. Trump’s declaration months ago that he intended to defy all congressional subpoenas. In the census investigation, they said, the administration had provided little more than unresponsive documents and stonewalling of critical deposition requests.
“It is indeed laughable” to say that the administration had cooperated with the panel, said Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts, brandishing a blacked-out page with no text visible as an example of the heavily redacted material the Commerce Department had sent. “We’ve reached our limit.”
In separate letters from the Justice Department and the Department of Commerce, administration officials maintained they had already turned over many materials in response to the subpoena, but that they had to keep certain information confidential to protect the candor of internal and attorney-client deliberations. Still, both officials made it clear that the privilege assertion was in retaliation for the panel’s insistence on issuing contempt citations for Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross.
“The Department regrets that you have made this assertion necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote,” the letter from the Commerce Department said.
The fight over the census centers on liberals’ suspicions that asking respondents to say whether they are American citizens could be a deliberate ploy to tilt the every-10-years reapportionment of House seats, shortchanging areas with higher levels of immigrants. They fear that undocumented immigrants or members of their families would be afraid to turn in their questionnaires, resulting in a population undercount.
The Census Bureau has estimated that asking all American residents whether they are citizens may spark a 5.8-percent decline in response rates from noncitizens, which Democrats fear will skew the reapportionment of House seats toward Republicans while depriving states of federal resources. Apportionment of House districts has been based on raw population, not the number of eligible voters.
“I want to know why people like Kris Kobach, with a résumé of voter suppression techniques, have their fingerprints all over the most sensitive census operations that we have as a government,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said as a bitter debate over the contempt citations unfolded between Republicans and Democrats on the panel. “This determines who is here. This determines who has power in the United States.”
In sworn testimony before Congress, Mr. Ross said he had decided to add the question “solely” in response to a Justice Department request in December 2017 for data to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But emails disclosed during the litigation showed that Mr. Ross had begun discussing the addition of the question several months before that, and that Mr. Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and architect of strict voter identification laws, had discussed doing so during Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Three federal trial judges have ruled that the evidence in the record demonstrates that Mr. Ross was dissembling.
New evidence from the computer files of a deceased Republican strategist suggests that the administration’s actual reason was to collect information that might allow states to draw voting districts counting only eligible voters rather than, as is the current practice, all residents. That would, the strategist wrote, “be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
The Supreme Court is already weighing whether adding the citizenship question to the census was lawful, and may hand down a ruling in the coming weeks. Republicans argued that Democrats were rushing the contempt citations in an attempt to pre-empt the court and influence its ruling.
“You are so concerned the Supreme Court’s going to rule on this that you’ve got to get it done before that happens,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the panel. “Why don’t the Democrats want to know how many citizens are in the country?”
The committee vote to recommend holding Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross in contempt would be the latest action by the Democrat-led House to intensify pressure on Mr. Trump and his inner circle to furnish critical witnesses, documents and other information that would fuel an array of investigations the House has opened into the president’s conduct and policies.
Wednesday’s actions in the Oversight Committee would mark the second time this year that a committee has recommended members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet be held in contempt of Congress. The Judiciary Committee had sought a contempt resolution against Mr. Barr for his refusal to provide the panel an unredacted version of the Mueller report as well as the evidence that supported the special counsel’s conclusions.
House leaders decided for now against voting to hold Mr. Barr in contempt after the Justice Department began on Monday to share some of the special counsel’s evidence with the committee. For the same reason, it is not yet clear whether the House Judiciary Committee will use its authority to file a lawsuit against him.
In the Oversight Committee’s subpoena fight, members have protested Mr. Barr’s instructions to a subordinate involved in the census to defy a subpoena requiring him to appear for a deposition based on a longstanding House rule that government lawyers are not permitted to accompany a witness in the deposition room.
The Trump administration on Tuesday disclosed a department memo claiming that the House rule is an unconstitutional intrusion on the president’s power to make sure subordinates do not disclose information that might be subject to executive privilege.
Democrats also complain that Mr. Ross has prevented the committee from gaining access to all the information its subpoena covers from his department, which houses the Census Bureau.
Taken together, this week’s action by committees and the full House are part of a strategy by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hold off calls to quickly impeach Mr. Trump by demonstrating that there are other ways to hold him and his administration publicly accountable for misconduct.
The House’s vote Tuesday should expedite the process by which other committees embroiled in disputes with the Trump administration can seek to have the courts enforce their oversight powers.