The Justice Department said Wednesday it will thwart a subpoena for one of its top officials to testify about the citizenship census question, saying House Democrats are trying to undermine the Executive Branch’s powers.
The House Oversight Committee has already interviewed John Gore, a key figure in the citizenship question saga, but Chairman Elijah E. Cummings says he wants answers to questions Mr. Gore wouldn’t respond to in that previous go-around.
He issued a subpoena compelling Mr. Gore to appear Thursday — and ordered he leave behind all Justice Department lawyers.
That’s a no-go, says Attorney General William Barr, who says the department lawyer is there to protect the Executive Branch’s interests under the constitutional separation of powers.
“We are disappointed that the committee remains unwilling to permit department counsel to represent the interests of the Executive Branch in the deposition of a senior department official,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote to Mr. Cummings Wednesday. “Accordingly, Attorney General Barr’s determination that Mr. Gore will not appear at the committee’s deposition unless a department attorney may accompany him remains in effect.”
The fight over this subpoena comes as President Trump has signaled frustration with House Democrats’ extensive demands for information, and his announcement that he will be “fighting all the subpoenas.”
Mr. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, connected Mr. Barr’s refusal to Mr. Trump’s defiant stance.
“Both President Trump and Attorney General Barr are now openly ordering federal employees to ignore congressional subpoenas and simply not show up — without any assertion of a valid legal privilege,” the congressman said.
He said his committee investigators will show up Thursday expecting to hear from Mr. Gore, and he warned the Justice Department official to “think very carefully” before hitching his wagon to Mr. Trump’s legal blockade.
Mr. Gore, acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, was at the center of the Trump administration’s move to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, sought to recruit another department to ask him to ask for the citizenship information. After the Justice Department initially balked, Mr. Gore was tasked with being the one to make the request — which he did in a letter in late 2017.
Armed with that request, Mr. Ross did add the question in.
That has sparked a massive legal battle which reached the Supreme Court on Tuesday, where justices heard oral argument from the state of New York, immigrant-rights activists and the Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives for why the question should be banned.
The court’s majority, though, seemed inclined to leave the question in place, with several conservative-leaning justices saying the secretary’s decision-making could be justified.
Mr. Gore already sat for “several hours” of questions from the Oversight Committee staff on March 7, but would not answer what the Justice Department labeled “confidential Executive Branch deliberations that are protected under well-established law.”
Mr. Boyd said there is “no legitimate legislative interest” in barring the department’s lawyer from being present to assert the administration’s rights.
The Census Bureau asked about citizenship on the full census questionnaire up through 1950, then pushed the question along with myriad other demographic inquiries to the so-called “long form,” which went to a smaller sampling. For the past two decades, it’s been part of the American Community Survey, a different census survey that also goes to only a sample.
The Trump administration says it’s important to ask all households the question.
Opponents question the motives for restoring the question and say it could frighten some people into not answering the census.
At Tuesday’s Supreme Court argument several justices wondered why Congress, if it disapproved of the question, didn’t pass legislation stopping it.
A lawyer for the Democrat-controlled House said they are still trying to get answers from the administration before taking legislative action.