Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question

Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question
© Aaron Schwartz

Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee revealed Tuesday that a former Commerce Department official said Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossHillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei Judge signs order permanently blocking citizenship question from 2020 census Lawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei MORE sought to add a citizenship question to the census early into the Trump administration, in an apparent contradiction of the administration’s previous statements.

James Uthmeier, a former senior adviser and counsel to Ross, told the committee during an interview earlier this month that Ross began to ask about the citizenship question shortly after the secretary was sworn in.

“Secretary Ross testified previously that he added the citizenship question ‘solely’ at the request of [the Department of Justice] to help enforce the Voting Rights Act,” the Democratic memo reads.

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“But evidence obtained by the committee indicates that this was merely a pretext and that Secretary Ross began a secret campaign to orchestrate the addition of the citizenship question just days after he was confirmed and months before any request from DOJ.” 

“The Secretary asked me to look into the issue. I would say at some point in the spring of 2017, likely March or April,” Uthmeier said, according to a transcript of the interview, adding that he talked about the question with Ross “multiple times.”

“However, department lawyers instructed Mr. Uthmeier not to disclose to committee staff the substance of any of his conversations with Secretary Ross regarding the citizenship question,” the memo reads.

Uthmeier therefore did not answer questions about Ross’s motivations behind adding the citizenship question, if Ross shared any interest from President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE about the question and if the secretary believed asking about citizenship would impact redistricting.

A Commerce Department spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday that the memo "mischaracterizes what Uthmeier said on multiple topics."

"In addition, Mr. Uthmeier, a former senior department attorney, answered over 400 questions but declined, consistent with his ethical obligations, to discuss privileged communications. That was entirely appropriate," the spokesperson said.

The former Commerce Department official also told committee investigators that he discussed the citizenship question and its potential impact on redistricting with Georgetown Law visiting professor John Baker. The memo claims Baker “has advocated for adding a citizenship question to the census in order to exclude immigrants when drawing congressional boundaries."

Uthmeier said he spoke with Baker “to obtain information on how citizenship data was used historically.”

The Hill has reached out to Baker for comment.

The memo also stated that Commerce Department attorneys blocked Uthmeier from answering more than 100 questions during the transcribed interview.

“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,” House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens House poised to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer MORE (D-Md.) said in a statement.

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

The committee also announced Tuesday that Cummings had filed the committee report recommending that the House hold Ross and Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrImmigration advocacy groups sue Trump administration over asylum restrictions Webb: Questions for Robert Mueller Groups sue Trump admin over new asylum restrictions MORE in contempt for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas on the citizenship question.

The committee voted largely along party lines earlier this month in favor of the contempt resolution. Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashHouse expected to vote Wednesday on Green's impeachment effort Trump signals he'll talk about minority congresswomen at Wednesday rally Green files articles of impeachment against Trump, setting up floor vote MORE (R-Mich.) was the only Republican to vote for the contempt measure.

Democrats on the committee have pointed to emerging evidence that a citizenship question on the census was not intended to enforce the Voting Rights Act, as the administration has said.

Evidence filed in a New York federal court late last month indicated that Thomas Hofeller, a late GOP redistricting strategist, played a role in the creation of the citizenship question.

And a federal judge in Maryland said last week that documents suggesting that Hofeller was in touch with a Census Bureau staffer in 2015 about a potential citizenship question also "raises a substantial issue."

The Supreme Court is set to issue a decision this week on whether the citizenship question should be allowed on the 2020 census.

-- This post was updated at 11:20 a.m.