Official’s Testimony Adds to Rancor Around Census Citizenship Question

WASHINGTON — A Commerce Department official considering whether the 2020 census should include a citizenship question told congressional aides that he consulted with a professor who argued that the addition was necessary to exclude undocumented immigrants from a redistricting of House seats, testimony released on Tuesday shows.

The testimony by James Uthmeier, the department’s counsel, to aides on the House Oversight and Reform Committee has drawn the ire of Democrats, who have accused the Trump administration of trying to skew census results to the Republican Party’s benefit.

“The Trump administration claimed that the only reason it wanted to add the citizenship question was to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act, but that claim has now been exposed as a pretext,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the committee.

“Official after official appearing before the committee have refused to answer questions about the real reasons behind their effort,” he continued, “but the mounting evidence points to a partisan and discriminatory effort to harm the interests of Democrats and nonwhites.”

During the interview with committee aides, Mr. Uthmeier said he had consulted John S. Baker, a visiting professor at Georgetown Law and a longtime mentor of his, “to obtain information on how citizenship data was used historically.”

Lawyers for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, blocked Mr. Uthmeier from answering nearly 100 questions during the session, including what Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told him were his reasons for trying to add a citizenship question.

The release of the documents is the latest episode in a politically charged battle over the committee’s attempts to investigate the Trump administration’s decision to ask 2020 census respondents whether they are citizens. The Oversight Committee voted along party lines this month to recommend that Mr. Ross and Attorney General William P. Barr be held in contempt of Congress, after President Trump invoked executive privilege to block the disclosure of documents on the decision.

The issue is currently before the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide the legality of the question within weeks. Conservatives backing the addition of the question have said it is reasonable to know how many residents are citizens, and the Justice Department has argued that Democrats’ allegations are “smoke and mirrors.”

Mr. Uthmeier also told committee staff members that Mr. Ross asked him to “look into” adding the question within weeks of being sworn in, contradicting testimony by Mr. Ross that the addition of the question was made “solely” at the behest of the Justice Department months into Mr. Ross’s tenure.

Emails disclosed during litigation challenging the question showed that Mr. Ross had begun discussing the addition of the question several months before that, and three federal trial judges have ruled that the evidence in the record demonstrates that Mr. Ross was dissembling.

The release of the interview followed a federal court ruling last week concluding that newly discovered documents on the computer backups of a recently deceased Republican strategist may warrant reopening a Maryland lawsuit challenging the citizenship question.

The strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller, was the first person to recommend to Mr. Trump’s transition team that a citizenship question be added to the 2020 census. Documents from his computer backups show he had prepared a study for a major Republican donor in 2015 concluding that data from a citizenship question could enable state legislators to redraw political boundaries after the census to Republicans’ advantage.

In an opinion supporting that ruling issued on Monday, Judge George J. Hazel of United States District Court for the District of Maryland said the new documents reinforce arguments that the true purpose of the citizenship question is not to prevent voter discrimination against minorities, as the Trump administration has argued, but to give Republicans a political advantage over Democrats.

“It is becoming difficult to avoid seeing that which is increasingly clear,” Judge Hazel wrote. “As more puzzle pieces are placed on the mat, a disturbing picture of the decision makers’ motives takes shape.”

A federal appeals court is considering Judge Hazel’s findings in the Maryland lawsuit, and will decide whether the new evidence merits returning the case to his court for further argument. That conceivably could prolong the legal battle over the citizenship question — even if the Supreme Court rules, relying on a different legal theory, that the administration has the authority to add the question to the 2020 head count.

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