WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege Wednesday to keep secret documents related to adding a citizenship question to the census, as a House panel debated holding two cabinet members in contempt for defying subpoenas for the documents.
In a further escalation of conflicts between Congress and the administration, the Oversight and Reform Committee scheduled votes against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for defying subpoenas for documents about how a citizenship question was added to the 2020 census. The Judiciary Committee already found Barr in contempt for defying a subpoena for the full report from former special counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Constitution calls for the census to count everyone in the country every decade. The administration's decision to ask people whether they are citizens in 2020 has been contentious because of Democratic concerns it could discourage participation. Republicans said the census included a citizenship question from 1820 to 1950, along with appearing on more detailed questionnaires in more recent decades.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd told Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., in a letter Wednesday that Trump was asserting executive privilege to prevent the release of key documents listed in the subpoena, including a Dec. 12, 2017, letter to the U.S. Census Bureau. Trump also protectively asserted executive privilege over the rest of the subpoenaed documents, while officials determine whether they should be kept secret.
"By proceeding with today's vote, you have abandoned the accommodation process with respect to your requests and subpoenas for documents concerning the secretary's decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census," Boyd said.
Trump declined to discuss the assertion of executive privilege when reporters asked him about it Wednesday, calling it a "legal matter," but he defended the citizenship question.
"I think it's totally ridiculous we would have a census without asking" about citizenship, Trump said.
Cummings opened the committee debate at 10 a.m., but said he would postpone the contempt vote until about 4 p.m. so that lawmakers could study the letters exchanged over executive privilege. But he said the bipartisan subpoenas were issued more than two months ago.
"It appears to be another example of the administration's blanket defiance," Cummings said. "This begs the question: what is being hidden?"
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, said Democrats were moving urgently on the contempt vote in an attempt to influence the Supreme Court, which is considering a case dealing with the census question.
"This is just another attempt to muddy the waters," Jordan said. "It's not what we should be doing."
The census is important because it counts the population once a decade to apportion seats in Congress, providing figures to map House districts and contributing to enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by showing the Justice Department where minorities live. The population figures are also used throughout government to divide billions in federal spending each year.
The Supreme Court, which has called the census "the linchpin of the federal statistical system," heard a case about the citizenship question in April and a ruling is expected by the end of June. The court will basically decide whether Ross had ample reason to ask about citizenship, followed acceptable procedures and acted within the bounds of the Constitution.
Cummings said Tuesday the administration refused to provide any documents for a variety of inquiries dealing with hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, White House security clearances and technology transfers to Saudi Arabia. He said enforcing the subpoenas Wednesday is critical to answering why Ross added the citizenship question, which Democrats fear will be used to intimidate minorities from responding to the once-a-decade count of the population.
"This is a broad, coordinated campaign to stonewall investigations across the board -and it is being directed from the very top," Cummings said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday the citizenship question threatened "to put a chilling effect on us getting an accurate count."
"The well-being of the American people and integrity of our democracy are imperiled by this brazen behavior," Pelosi said in arguing for lawsuits to enforce subpoenas.
But Trump has said he will defy subpoenas because the multiple House inquiries amount to presidential harassment. House Republicans have argued that Democrats are moving too hastily to find officials in contempt and to file federal lawsuits, rather than spending more time negotiating with the Justice Department for contested documents.
"The record before the committee does not support contempt of Congress at this time," Jordan said Tuesday in a letter to Cummings. "If you were serious about getting to the facts on the Administration's decision to reinstitute a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, you should attempt to obtain the information from other sources before rushing to contempt of Congress."
The census fight followed a House vote Tuesday to authorize lawsuits to enforce subpoenas against Barr for the full Mueller report and underlying documents, and against former White House counsel Don McGahn. The House also agreed to ease the approval of lawsuits to enforce subpoenas. Traditionally, the full House voted to authorize lawsuits, but the resolution adopted in a party-line vote allowed a five-member leadership group controlled by Democrats to approve lawsuits.
The House already is locked in a pair of court fights with Trump over subpoenas for his financial records. Two federal judges rejected Trump's efforts to block the subpoenas, and the president has appealed, arguing that "Congress is simply not allowed to conduct law-enforcement investigations of the president."
Contributing: David Jackson
More about the legal and political fight over the census:
Inside Trump administration's mysterious plan to secure a 2020 census citizenship question
'We're fighting all the subpoenas.' Congress and Trump prepare to battle over wide-ranging probes
'Slow-motion constitutional car crash': Trump, Congress battle over investigations with no end in sight
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump asserts executive privilege to keep census documents secret as House considers contempt for Barr, Ross