POLITICS
03/14/2019 18:36 EDT | Updated 03/14/2019 18:42 EDT

Wilbur Ross Says He Didn't Lie To Congress, But Won't Say More About Census Citizenship Question

The commerce secretary faced scrutiny over the process he used to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Two judges have already said it's illegal.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday refused to say he lied to Congress last year about his decision-making in adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, even though several public documents show he may have done just that.

Two federal courts have already ruled Ross broke the law when he added the citizenship question, and they blocked the Trump administration from adding it to the survey. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear the case in April.

Ross testified on multiple occasions last year that he began considering whether to add a citizenship question after the Justice Department requested he do so in December 2017 so it could get better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But documents made public as part of federal lawsuits show Ross was interested in adding the question long before the Justice Department’s request and had expressed frustration that the process to add the question was not moving faster.

The documents also showed that the request from the Justice Department did not come on its own. Ross has asked the department to make it. 

Ross denied multiple times on Thursday that he had denied or intentionally misled Congress about his decision-making in adding the question.

“I testified truthfully to the best of my ability in response to what my understanding of the questions were,” Ross said on Thursday.

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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he had not lied to Congress when he testified that he began considering adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census after the Justice Department requested that he do so. 

In one hearing last year, Ross told Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) he was responding “solely to the Department of Justice’s request.” During another hearing, he told Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) the Justice Department had “initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.” During another hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Ross why the DOJ had requested the question, and Ross said, “the Justice Department is the one who made the request of us.”

Civil rights groups have loudly opposed adding the question, saying it will cause fewer minorities and immigrant groups to respond to the decennial survey. An inaccurate census would have severe consequences because data from the survey are used to draw electoral districts and determine how over $675 billion in federal funds are allocated.

The plaintiffs in the case pointed to the documents made public in litigation as evidence that Ross and the Trump administration were determined to get a citizenship question on the 2020 census. They say Ross sought out the Justice Department’s request to justify adding the question but that the rationale was “pretextual.”

In May of 2017, months before the Justice Department made its request, Ross wrote to senior Commerce Department official Earl Comstock saying that he was “mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question Why not?”

Comstock wrote back, “On the citizenship question we will get that in place.”

Ross dodged several questions about his reasoning for adding the citizenship question. He would only say repeatedly that his justification was laid out in a March 2018 memo announcing the decision. He also refused to answer several questions about his conversations with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the matter, saying they were confidential.

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Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and other Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform accused Wilbur Ross of improperly withholding information from the committee.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and other Democrats on the committee objected to Ross’ confidentiality claim, saying the commerce secretary was failing to assert a basis for withholding information from the committee. At the conclusion of the hearing, Cummings said he felt like Ross had “pulled a fast one” and threatened to issue a subpoena if Ross didn’t turn over more information.

Several Republicans on the committee said that Thursday’s hearing was improper because the Supreme Court had blocked Ross from having to sit for a deposition in the federal litigation over the citizenship question. They accused Democrats of trying to go around that order by holding the hearing and said it could improperly influence the case before the Supreme Court.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) pointed out that the Supreme Court was bound to only consider what was in the record of the lower courts and that Thursday’s hearing would not be included in that hearing.

The committee’s GOP members, led by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), also tried to portray the addition of the citizenship question as an uncontroversial change. They suggested that the question has always been on the census. But those suggestions are misleading ― while various parts of the census have asked about citizenship, the decennial survey that goes out to every American household has not asked about it since 1950.

Democrats on the committee also released new information that further undermined the Commerce Department’s timeline suggesting the DOJ had initiated the request for a citizenship question. In a memo, the committee said it had interviewed John Gore, a top official in the department’s Civil Rights Division, who said he had received a hand-delivered memo from the Commerce Department about the citizenship question.

Gore also told Democrats, according to the memo, that he received a draft of language DOJ could use to request a citizenship question as he was working on the formal request the Justice Department eventually sent to the Commerce Department. Gore did not mention the draft language from the Commerce Department in a sworn deposition in the federal litigation, only saying that he was the one who drafted the letter.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

Critics accuse the Trump administration of intentionally seeking to drive down the census response rate of immigrant communities. Shortly after Ross was confirmed, an aide sent him a Wall Street Journal article detailing how the census counted undocumented immigrants, according to the documents made public in the federal case.

Ross said Thursday that his decision had nothing to do with counting undocumented immigrants for apportionment purposes.

“If you look at my emails during that period, you will find lots of other questions, and if you look at the records of my conversations with members of the department, you will find I have lots of questions to this day seeking further information, seeking clarification, seeking details of things that I was unsure of,” Ross said.