The House Oversight Committee reached out directly to key figures in the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the census, seeking interviews with the individuals, in letters that claimed the Commerce Department was stymieing the committee’s investigation.
The Commerce Department has not complied with a subpoena for certain documents, the committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and civil rights subcommittee Chairman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said in the letters. Nor has the department cooperated with the committee’s request to interview the administration officials, according to the letters.
Additionally, the letters cited a provision in appropriations law that would allow for the docking of salaries for government officials who prevented or attempted to prevent someone from speaking to the committee.
The letters were sent to top Commerce official Earl Comstock, the department’s general counsel Peter Davidson, former department lawyer James Uthmeier and Gene Hamilton, who is currently at the Justice Department.
Comstock was the primary Commerce Department official working on getting the citizenship question added to the census, a request Secretary Wilbur Ross made in the early days of the Trump administration. Comstock reached out to a number of people both inside and outside of the government to discuss how to go about doing it.
Gene Hamilton, then an official at the Department of Homeland Security, was one of those people. According to a September 2017 memo Comstock wrote Ross, Comstock asked Hamilton if the DHS would put in a formal request that the question be added, and Hamilton told Comstock that the issue was more appropriate for the Justice Department, which had previously rebuffed Comstock.
Eventually, with an intervention in the form of a Ross phone call with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department relented and submitted a formal request for the question in December 2017.
John Gore, the DOJ official who served as the the point person in formulating the request, has already sat for an interview with the committee, but he declined to answer many of its questions.
According to that same Comstock memo, after DHS and Justice initially turned Commerce down, Uthmeier was tasked with looking into the “legal issues and how Commerce could add the question to the Census itself.”
Uthmeier and Davidson ultimately acted as conduits between Commerce and Gore as he worked out the legal rationale for seeking the question.
This whole chain of events — and the other records and deposition produced in the litigation around the move — prompted three separate courts to rule that Ross’ conduct violated the Administrative Procedure Act. Those decisions, and whether the question stays on the 2020 census, are being reviewed by the Supreme Court.
Tuesday’s letters from the Oversight Committee asked the individuals respond to the voluntary interview requests by May 13.