Attorney General William Barr speaks about the census as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross listens during an event with President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Commerce chief Ross calls contempt vote 'political theater'

July 17, 2019 - 11:42 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Wednesday that a planned vote by the Democratic-controlled House to hold him and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress was nothing more than "political theater" intended to embarrass and harass the Trump administration.

Ross told the Fox Business Network that his department has supplied more than 14,000 pages of documents related to the 2020 census and excluded only about 15 pages that the administration believes are protected under executive privilege.

At issue is the failure by the two Cabinet members to provide documents related to a decision to add a citizenship question to the census. President Donald Trump abandoned that effort last week after the Supreme Court said the administration's justification for the question "seems to have been contrived ." Trump directed agencies to try to compile the information using existing databases.

Ross called the contempt vote "silly" and said, "this is just more political theater. It doesn't really have any substantive basis."

Ross, who testified before a House committee for nearly seven hours this spring, said he and other officials have "answered thousands of questions. We are not stonewalling. But we are also not yielding on the very, very important matter of executive privilege."

Ross told the committee that the March 2018 decision to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Democrats disputed that and they cited documents unearthed last month suggesting that a push to draw legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways was the real reason the administration wanted to include the question.

Democrats feared that adding the question would reduce participation in immigrant-heavy communities and result in a severe undercount of minority voters. They have pressed for specific documents to determine Ross' motivation and contend the administration has declined to provide the material despite repeated requests.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the contempt vote was an important step to assert Congress' constitutional authority to serve as a check on executive power

"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," he said.

Ross and other officials have "refused to answer questions about the real reasons behind their effort" to add the citizenship question, Cummings said, "but the mounting evidence points to a partisan and discriminatory effort to harm the interests of Democrats and non-white" voters.

Action to hold Barr and Ross in contempt would be a political blow but would not inflict real punishment because the Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute them.

A spokeswoman for Barr said the contempt vote defied logic and undermined Congress' credibility with the American people.

Trump has pledged to "fight all the subpoenas" issued by Congress and says he won't work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.

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