Hans von Spakovsky: House Dem zealots ignore facts to wrongly cite Trump Cabinet members for contempt

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A House committee vote Wednesday holding the attorney general and commerce secretary in contempt for failing to turn over confidential documents dealing with a lawsuit involving the U.S. census was political gamesmanship of the worst kind by Democrats.

In a 24-15 vote, all Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for failing to respond to the committee’s subpoena.

Republican Justin Amash of Michigan – who has called for the House to hold hearings on impeaching President Trump – voted with the Democrats. The other 15 Republicans on the committee voted against the baseless contempt citation.


The vote by Democrats and Amash was itself contemptible – an example of out-of-control zeal to attack the Trump administration as often and as hard as possible, regardless of the facts.

The documents deal with a decision by the Commerce Department to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“Why don’t the Democrats want to know how many citizens are in the country?” asked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Democrats have said they fear that asking people in the census if they are U.S. citizens will reduce participation in the census by immigrants, resulting in an undercount of the U.S. population in areas with large immigrant populations. However, there is no empirical data to support that claim.

President Trump quite properly asserted executive privilege over the subpoenaed documents Wednesday morning. The president took the action because Congress has no right to demand or receive the documents, since they are part of a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court.

This is akin to one team in the Super Bowl demanding that the opposing team post its game strategy and the plays it plans to execute on the Internet right before the game, or one poker player demanding that a competing player show all his cards while he plays.

The contempt citation against Barr and Ross is a transparent and improper attempt to influence the Supreme Court decision in the case of Department of Commerce v. New York. The lawsuit, which was filed by a cadre of liberal state attorneys general and advocacy organizations, seeks to stop the Trump administration from reinstating the citizenship question on the 2020 census.

The case was argued before the Supreme Court in April, and a decision is expected within the next two weeks. Democrats are afraid the high court will actually uphold federal law and side with the Trump administration.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has been demanding that the Justice Department turn over all of its internal documents regarding this case. This includes a highly confidential and privileged legal memorandum and similar documents essential to the department’s courtroom defense.

This is akin to one team in the Super Bowl demanding that the opposing team post its game strategy and the plays it plans to execute on the Internet right before the game, or one poker player demanding that a competing player show all his cards while he plays.

The Justice Department has been very accommodating to Cummings’ committee. It has turned over more than 17,000 pages of documents and has allowed two of its senior officials to be interviewed by committee staff.

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Gore, one of the people interviewed, also testified before the full committee May 18.

So why the contempt citation and why has President Trump asserted the constitutionally recognized doctrine of executive privilege?

Because, according to a June 6 Justice Department letter to Cummings, the House committee was demanding confidential documents “protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege, deliberative process privilege, and/or the attorney work product doctrine.” 

In fact, the Justice Department notes, the federal district court in the Department of Commerce case “has already held” that the specific documents Cummings is demanding are “protected by such privileges.” 

Cummings has also demanded that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gore present himself for further questioning before the committee without a Justice Department lawyer to advise him.  Anyone who has ever watched a courtroom drama on TV knows it is completely unreasonable to require a witness to appear without legal representation.

As the Justice Department says in its June 6 letter, the committee’s exclusion of “agency counsel from a compelled deposition of a Department official ... would unconstitutionally infringe upon the prerogatives of the Executive branch.”

It is hard to see a demand for a third interview with the same witness as anything other than harassment. Yet the Justice Department told Cummings it would make Gore available for a third appearance if his lawyer could accompany him. Cummings’ response was to have his committee hold Barr in contempt. 

It is very plain what is going on here. Cummings’ liberal allies – those who brought the lawsuit – have already tried and failed to get these highly confidential and privileged documents through the litigation. The lower federal court ruled against the request to disclose the documents.


Now Cummings’ committee is trying to do the dirty work for those suing the Commerce Department by misusing congressional power to get the documents, hoping Democrats can find something they can use to sabotage the case and derail the Supreme Court’s decision.

This contempt vote actually demonstrates the contempt that the committee has for the rule of law and orderly legal process and procedures. It shows contempt for the concept of basic fairness in the administration of justice.