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Commerce chief calls contempt vote ‘political theater’

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.”

He and other officials have “answered thousands of questions,” said Ross, who testified before a House committee for nearly seven hours this spring. “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, citing 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.

“Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter — one that I have done everything in my power to avoid,” Cummings said during House debate. “But in the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying for the first time in 70 years to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.”

While Ross and other officials have claimed the sole reason they wanted to add the citizenship question was to enforce the Voting Rights Act, “we now know that claim was nothing but a pretext,” Cummings said. “The Supreme Court said that.”

At the direction of Barr and Ross, “the departments of Justice and Commerce have been engaged in a campaign to subvert our laws and the process Congress put in place to maintain the integrity of the census,” Cummings said.

The contempt resolution “is about protecting our democracy, protecting the integrity of this body. It’s bigger than the census,” he said.

“The real issue we should be debating” is why Democrats are afraid to ask how many citizens live in the United States, countered Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. Contrary to Democrats’ claims, Ross and other officials have cooperated with the Oversight panel and provided thousands of documents, Comer said.

“If the Democrats can’t impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his Cabinet in contempt of Congress,” he said. “This is just another episode in political theater.”

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.

In a letter late Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barr and Ross asked Democrats to postpone the vote, saying they have shown a “clear record of cooperation” with Congress. The contempt vote “is both unnecessarily undermining” relations between the two branches and “degrading” Congress’ “own institutional integrity,” they wrote.

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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