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US House of Representatives holds two Cabinet officers in criminal contempt of Congress

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The United States House of Representatives voted to hold two current Cabinet officers, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr, in contempt of Congress, citing their refusal to disclose to Congress documents related to President Donald Trump's attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The vote passed primarily along party lines, 230-to-198. Historically, the Department of Justice has not pursued criminal charges against those held in contempt of Congress.

In April, the House Oversight and Reform Committee authorized subpoenas for documents relating to the administration's decision to try to add a question about citizenship to the census, attempting to discern the true reason for the addition of the citizenship question. Barr and Ross, however, refused to hand over the documents. On June 12, minutes before the Oversight Committee voted to refer them to the full House to be held in contempt, Trump formally claimed the documents were subject to executive privilege.

For weeks, the Trump administration has been trying to add the question, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?", to the upcoming 2020 census, with the stated rationale of improving enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In late June, the United States Supreme Court ruled against its initial attempt, saying the justification presented for the question was "contrived." A few days later, on July 2, Trump announced he would drop his bid to add the question, before reversing course the next day and pressing forward. A few days later the administration said he would use an executive order to add the citizenship question to the census, disregarding the Supreme Court's ruling. The administration finally gave up on July 11, arranging instead to provide citizenship information to the Census Bureau from other government agencies.

Only once before has Congress voted to hold a Cabinet officer in contempt while they were in office: Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt in 2012 for refusing to turn over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious. People held in contempt of Congress are referred to the Department of Justice for potential criminal prosecution. As Attorney General, Barr leads the Department of Justice. Kerri Kupec, spokeswoman for the Trump administration's Department of Justice, sharply criticized the House's decision, which Ross has referred to as "gamesmanship" and a "stunt".

The citizenship question was last included in the general census in 1950.


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