House Oversight Committee votes to hold Barr, Ross in contempt, as Trump asserts executive privilege over census materials

The Democrat-led House Oversight and Reform Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in contempt by a 24-15 vote, saying the Trump administration has been stonewalling access to documents concerning its decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

All Democrats -- and Michigan GOP Rep. Justin Amash, who recently stepped down from the conservative House Freedom Caucus after calling for President Trump's impeachment -- supported the measure.

The contempt resolution must now go before a vote of the full House. Earlier Wednesday, the Justice Department said President Trump was asserting executive privilege over the documents the panel had requested.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings accused Ross and Barr of withholding relevant documents. But, the Maryland Democrat had postponed the contempt vote until the afternoon, so lawmakers could digest the letter from the Justice Department about Trump invoking executive privilege.

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Stephen E. Boyd, the assistant attorney general, in a letter to Cummings on Wednesday, cited the “president’s determination of an assertion of executive privilege.” He wrote that the Justice Department has “engaged in good-faith efforts to satisfy the legislative needs of the committee,” but said it was unable to “produce these privileged materials” because of the invocation of executive privilege.

“Unfortunately, rather than allowing the Department to complete its document production, you have chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote,” Boyd wrote.

Following the contempt vote, the DOJ escalated its language.

"The Committee’s attempt to define the Department of Justice’s good-faith cooperation as ‘contempt’ defies logic," the DOJ wrote. "Today’s action by Chairman Cummings and his Committee undermines Congress’s credibility with the American people. The Department of Justice has tirelessly worked for months to accommodate the Committee’s requests for information, including producing over 17,000 pages of documents and making senior Department officials available for questioning. Despite the Committee’s political games, the Department will remain focused on its critical work safeguarding the American people and upholding the rule of law.”

During the hearing, Cummings blasted the Trump administration's move to ask census respondents about whether they're citizens, saying, “We’ve obtained evidence showing that Secretary Ross was aggressively pressing his staff to add the citizenship question months before any requests from the Justice Department in the spring of 2017.”

HOUSE VOTES TO HOLD BARR, MCGAHN IN 'CONTEMPT,' WITH ANOTHER VOTE EXPECTED SOON

Republicans condemned the move by committee Democrats. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking member of the committee, called the Democratic probe a "partisan investigation."

"Why don't the Democrats want to know how many citizens are in the country?" Jordan said.

As for the Oversight Committee, Democrats say they want specific documents to determine why Ross added the citizenship question to the 2020 census. They say the Trump administration has declined to provide the documents despite repeated requests.

Ross told the committee the decision in March 2018 to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But Democrats say Ross considered adding the citizenship question from his first days in the administration in 2017. They fear the question will reduce census participation in immigrant-heavy communities, harming representation and access to federal dollars.

A spokesman for Ross said the Commerce Department has worked in good faith with the committee and delivered nearly 14,000 pages of documents. Ross testified for nearly seven hours earlier this year.

The Supreme Court is considering the citizenship question in a ruling expected later this year.

A contempt vote by the committee would be an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of President Donald Trump's administration.

In a party-line 229-191 vote over efforts to obtain documents related to the Russia investigation, House Democrats on Tuesday passed a civil enforcement resolution against Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn that some lawmakers likened to contempt, though that word did not appear in the measure. This came just a day after a key Democrat-led committee postponed its own contempt vote and said the Justice Department was cooperating with its Russia-related investigation.

A vote by the full House would be required to hold Barr and Ross in contempt on the census issue. Such a finding would be a political blow but would not result in real punishment since the men are unlikely to go to jail or be arrested.

Fox News’ Mike Emanuel, Gregg Re and The Associated Press contributed to this report.