Impeachment: Congress committee sues Trump’s aides over refusal to release document

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The United States Attorney General, William Barr and the Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross Jr, have been sued by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform for refusing to produce subpoenaed documents regarding President Donald Trump’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, is an escalation of a months-long dispute over the panel’s efforts to investigate the Trump administration’s effort to alter the decennial survey to ask 2020 respondents whether they are citizens.

The government abandoned that effort after the Supreme Court in June blocked the question from being added, rejecting the administration’s stated reason for the effort as “contrived”.

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The case comes amid other federal court rulings this week that have rejected the Trump administration’s attempts to stonewall congressional oversight, including in the impeachment inquiry, in which federal judges have said the White House and federal agencies cannot withhold key witnesses and documents in matters the legislative branch is investigating.

House Democrats have continued to investigate the census matter, arguing that they need to determine whether Congress should enact legislation to prevent the administration from employing similar tactics in the future.

Democrats believe that the documents will show that the administration’s stated rationale for collecting the data – to better enforce the Voting Rights Act – was a cover story invented to mask a politically motivated attempt to diminish Democratic power by discouraging non-citizens from completing the survey.

States rely on raw population data, rather than eligible voters, to draw House districts and to determine access to federal social welfare programmes.

“Mr Barr and Mr Ross have doubled down on their open defiance of the rule of law and refused to produce even a single additional document in response to our committee’s bipartisan subpoenas,” said Democrat Carolyn B Maloney, the chairwoman of the committee.

“President Trump and his aides are not above the law. They cannot be allowed to disregard and degrade the authority of Congress to fulfill our core constitutional legislative and oversight responsibilities.”

The panel is seeking documents concerning crucial developments in the process of adding the citizenship question and communications between the Commerce Department and the Department of Justice. The documents “go to the heart of the committee’s investigative interests”, Ms Maloney previously told lawmakers on the panel.

The lawsuit is the latest front in the fight between the House and the executive branch. The House voted in July to hold Mr Barr and Mr Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for their refusal to turn over those documents.

A spokesman for the Commerce Department said in a statement that the lawsuit “lacks merit”.

A spokesman for the Justice Department described it as “nothing more than a political stunt”. Officials with both departments said they had tried to operate in good faith with the panel’s requests.

House Democrats leading the investigation have been successful so far in eliciting testimony and documents from Census Bureau officials as well as a member Mr Trump’s transition team, both in their own inquiry and through the Supreme Court case.

That evidence showed that adding a citizenship question was pitched to the Trump campaign and was discussed by White House officials in early 2017. Mr Ross sought to add a citizenship question before the Justice Department request, and personally sought its assistance in September 2017.

Christa Jones, the Census Bureau’s chief of staff, additionally told House investigators that she had been in touch with a Republican redistricting strategist to discuss the effort to add the question, and that he had expressed interest in using the question for what he called “the Republican redistricting effort”.

Jones testified to investigators that she told the strategist, Thomas B Hofeller, that adding a citizenship question would “have a negative impact” on the response rate to the census.

The upcoming census begins in Alaska in January 2020 and across the rest of the country in April 2020.

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