White House sought to assert executive privilege in Kobach interview on census citizenship question, Cummings says

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFacial recognition tools under fresh scrutiny amid police protests The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers Democrat Kweisi Mfume wins House primary in Maryland MORE (D-Md.) accused the White House on Friday of seeking to assert executive privilege in an interview that committee staff had with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) this week concerning his involvement in getting a citizenship question added to the 2020 census.

In the memo, Cummings alleged that the White House “interfered directly and aggressively” with the previously undisclosed interview by requesting that Kobach not answer questions about his conversations with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE and other White House staff about why the question was added.

He also said the White House sent several letters to the committee “vastly expanding its previous assertions of Executive Privilege to apply to Mr. Kobach—a private citizen who did not work for the Trump Administration when these communications took place.”


“The Trump Administration’s expansion of Executive Privilege to apply to anyone the President talks to—including those completely outside the government—is a vast departure from previous precedent and obstructs the Committee’s constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight of the Census,” Cummings wrote.

The memo points to a letter sent by deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura to Cummings on May 21 that argued executive privilege applies to conversations Trump and senior White House advisers had with Kobach.

“The Executive Branch's confidentiality interests are not limited solely to communications directly involving the President and other Executive Branch officials,” Purpura wrote. “Rather, a President and his senior advisers must frequently consult with individuals outside of the Executive Branch, and those communications are also subject to protection.”

And White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a a letter to Cummings on Monday — the day of Kobach’s interview — that the White House did “have a well-established legal basis for instructing Mr. Kobach not to answer questions about his communications with the President or senior White House advisers.”

He wrote that communications by Trump “seeking advice or information in connection with the discharge of his duties” and “communications made or received by senior White House advisers in the course of advising the president on official government matters” are both confidential.

Cummings pushed back against the claims in his memo Friday, writing that Cipollone’s letter “cited no authority for the White House to enforce its instruction directly or to take legal action against Mr. Kobach for answering the Committee’s questions.”

“Unfortunately, the White House’s demands had their intended effect. During the interview, Mr. Kobach declined more than 15 times to answer questions about his communications with the President and other White House officials, citing the directives from the White House,” the chairman’s memo states.

Cummings on Friday also revealed some details of the committee's interview with Kobach, but did not release the full transcript.

He said the former Kansas secretary of state, who served as an informal adviser on the Trump campaign and led the president’s now-shuttered voter fraud commission, told investigators that he personally discussed the possible citizenship question with Trump early on in his presidency.

The memo also states that Kobach told the committee he had conversations with Trump campaign staff about adding the citizenship question to the census. The revelation would push the time frame for when those discussions began to earlier than was initially reported.

It also alleges that responses Kobach gave were "inconsistent" with testimony given by Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossOVERNIGHT ENERGY: WH pushed for 'correction' to Weather Service tweet contradicting Trump in 'Sharpiegate' incident, watchdog says | Supreme Court rules that large swath of Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribe WH pushed for 'correction' to Weather Service tweet contradicting Trump in 'Sharpiegate' incident, watchdog says  OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget MORE

Ross had previously told the committee that he had flat-out rejected a proposed version of the citizenship question given to him by Kobach.

But Kobach, according to Cummings's memo, provided a different characterization of Ross's reaction to his proposal.

"If [Ross] had said flatly no, I don’t, whatever, you know, I think that’s a bad idea, I probably would have remembered that. So I think his—I don’t remember his specific response, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, you know, absolutely no," Kobach told committee staff, according to the memo.

In a sharply-worded statement to The Hill, a Commerce Department spokesperson charged that Cummings “lied to the American people.”

“Secretary Ross testified truthfully and for nearly 7 hours in March. The record shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the question the Secretary reinstated to the 2020 Census is not the series of questions Kobach asked him to consider. Not even close,” the spokesperson said.

“It is clear that no matter how much the Department cooperates and provides information in good faith, the Committee will lie about the facts.”

Cummings dropped the bombshell memo just hours after he said his committee would vote next week to hold Attorney General William BarrBill BarrBarr says Black Lives Matter 'distorting the debate' Barr: Don't defund police, invest in them Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' MORE and Ross in contempt for failing to comply with subpoenas issued in the congressional probe on the census citizenship question.

The Department of Justice and Commerce Department had both sought to cast the contempt threats as attempts to derail the Supreme Court's current consideration of whether the citizenship question should be permitted on the 2020 census.

And the agencies pointed to past documents and interviews that department staff had provided and sat for as showing that they were willing to cooperate in the Oversight and Reform Committee's investigation.

But in a statement issued early Friday, Cummings said his panel gave the two Cabinet members "every opportunity to produce the documents the committee needs for our investigation, but rather than cooperate, they have decided that they would rather be held in contempt of Congress."

That vote is expected to take place next week.

The census citizenship question has been at the center of several legal battles since the administration announced it late last year.

The Commerce Department, which issues the census, said the question was needed to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But opponents argue that asking about citizenship will cause some respondents to skip the question or the census altogether, leading to an inaccurate population count.

Three federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration over the question. But the Supreme Court's conservative majority signaled that it would rule in favor of allowing the question, a decision expected to be made by the end of June.

Further scrutiny over the question was fueled last month, when the American Civil Liberties Union — which has sued the Trump administration over the question — dropped new court filings showing the role of a GOP redistricting strategist in getting the query added to the 2020 census.

That new evidence alleges that the strategist, who died last year, knew that asking about citizenship would help the GOP in redistricting efforts and undermines the Trump administration's argument for the question. The Justice Department has disputed that officials had any ulterior political motives in getting the question on the census.

But a federal judge in New York this week declined to rule quickly on whether any Trump officials should face sanctions over the new evidence, calling it secondary to the Supreme Court's current consideration of the question.

Updated: 8 p.m.