The White House headed off a threat from House Democrats to move forward with contempt proceedings against two of its key cabinet members by asserting executive privilege over subpoenaed documents.
A message from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent to House Oversight Committee chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) informs the panel that the White House had asserted privilege over documents related to the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
“This letter is to advise you that the President has asserted executive privilege over certain subpoenaed documents identified by the Committee in its June 3, 2019 letters to the Attorney General and the Secretary,” the letter reads. “These documents are protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney—client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege. In addition, the President has made a protective assertion of executive privilege over the remainder of the subpoenaed documents.”
The scheduled contempt vote was against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in regard to their agencies’ response to subpoenas issued in April.
“We gave Attorney General Barr and Secretary Ross 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,” Cummings said last week. “They produced none of the documents we asked for, they made no counter-offers regarding these documents, and they seem determined to continue the Trump Administration’s cover-up.”
The DOJ, however, insists that they’ve been working with Congress in “good faith,” but aren’t being given enough time to produce the protected documents.
“By proceeding with today’s vote, you have abandoned the accommodation process with respect to your requests and subpoenas for documents concerning the Secretary’s decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” the new DOJ letter warns. “The Executive Branch has engaged in good-faith efforts to satisfy the legislative needs of the Committee … Unfortunately, rather than allowing the Department to complete its document production, you have chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote.”
In response to the Wednesday morning letter, the Committee delayed its scheduled vote until that afternoon to give its members a few hours to digest the new information before making a decision. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), however, requested that the vote be delayed by “at least two weeks” instead.
The Department of Commerce announced last March that the U.S. census would reinstate a question on citizenship status for the 2020 population survey. California sued to block the move. A federal judge blocked it. The Supreme Court is expected to take the question up.
“In its zeal to influence the Supreme Court’s decision, the committee is poised to hold Secretary Ross in contempt,” a Commerce Department spokesperson said last week. “Holding the secretary in contempt is an empty stunt, and it shows that the committee is simply interested in playing politics.”
On Monday, a similar effort to hold Barr in contempt over the Mueller report was put on hold as DOJ and the House Judiciary Committee announced a deal on subpoena compliance.