WASHINGTON – A U.S. House committee voted on Wednesday in favor of holding two of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers in contempt of Congress for defying congressional subpoenas related to an effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census.
By a 24-15 bipartisan vote, the House Oversight Committee recommended the full House of Representatives find Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt. For Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official, it was the second time a House panel had made such a recommendation against him.
Trump earlier in the day asserted executive privilege to keep under wraps documents related to his administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, defying a subpoena from the committee, chaired by Democrat Elijah Cummings.
“The president’s assertion does not change the fact that the attorney general and the secretary of commerce are sadly in contempt,” Cummings said during a nearly seven-hour meeting of the Democratic-led investigative panel.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement that the committee was playing “political games” and that the agency had tried for months to accommodate the committee’s demands for documents. Ross called the vote an “empty stunt.”
Trump, a Republican, and Democrats in control of the House are locked in a political battle over the legislature’s power to hold the executive to account. Trump and members of his inner circle have repeatedly ignored official demands and requests from Congress for documents and testimony.
Traditionally, executive privilege has only rarely been invoked by presidents to keep other branches of government from getting access to certain internal executive branch information. Trump last month also invoked it to block a House panel from getting an unredacted copy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy.
Contempt of Congress is an offense that can be enforced in several ways. So far, House Democrats have moved toward bringing federal court actions in which they would ask a judge to enforce compliance with congressional subpoenas by imposing daily fines on defendants or even arrest and imprisonment.
The House Judiciary Committee on May 8 voted to recommend a contempt citation against Barr over his refusal to comply with the subpoena seeking the unredacted Mueller report.
Democrats on the Oversight Committee were joined in supporting the contempt citations for Barr and Ross by Republican Representative Justin Amash, who is also the sole House Republican to call Trump’s behavior “impeachable.”