Commerce Secretary says he didn't mislead Congress

Wilbur Ross rebuts Democrats

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Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday that his congressional testimony on adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census has been truthful, even displaying a series of photographs in rebuttal to Democrats who argue otherwise.

"I testified truthfully to the best of my ability in response to what my understanding of what the questions were," Ross told the House Oversight Committee on Thursday.

Democrats have claimed that Ross misled them at a March 2018 hearing, when he appeared to testify that he had not discussed with the White House whether to add the controversial question, which many fear could prompt even legal immigrants to avoid completing the census -- leading to an inaccurate count of the US population that would impact a wide range of social services and other government programs.

"Has the President or anyone in the White House discussed with you or anyone on your team about adding this citizen question?" asked New York Democratic Rep. Grace Meng at that 2018 hearing.

"I'm not aware of any such," Ross replied.

When the Commerce Department later released documents showing a phone call between Ross and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon about the citizenship question, Meng said she felt "lied to."

At Thursday's hearing, Ross displayed photographs of him answering the question. The pictures showed him holding a document, and Ross explained he thought the question was about the document, rather than more generally.

"I'm reading it as I'm answering the question," Ross explained.

He also said the call from Bannon was "very brief" and simply a request that Ross speak with Kris Kobach, a former Trump adviser and Kansas attorney general who was an outspoken voice against voting fraud.

"That's the extent of the conversation," Ross said. He later added he rejected the wording for the question proposed by Kobach, and instead used language from a different Census Bureau survey.

He cited "confidentiality" as a reason for not answering congressional questions about conversations with other White House officials.

Two federal courts, in New York and California, have ordered the question not appear on the census, and the Supreme Court will hear an appeal of the New York ruling next month. A trial court in Maryland is expected to rule on a separate case soon.

Ross announced his decision to add the citizenship question about a week after the 2018 hearing, and over the ensuing year, the decision and rationale have been challenged in court and debated by politicians.

Ross' announcement described citizenship data as necessary for the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and Republicans point to examples about citizenship appearing on past decennial and other census surveys as evidence it is a normal query.

Democrats are suspect of that explanation, and see a secretary who sought a justifiable rationale to ask a question that Census Bureau data shows will likely lead to a less accurate count of non-citizens and other minority populations.

Thursday's session put those two competing views on display.

Ross stood by his story that interest in the citizenship question originated with the Justice Department, which made a formal request in December 2017. As evidence of the Justice Department's interest in the question, he said then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions is "not someone who I could bully."

Democrats pointed to evidence Ross had been interested in the question long before, including a May 2017 email asking "why nothing have been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question."

Republicans accused Democrats of partisanship, and Ross said he had not considered politics when weighing the questions.

In his closing remarks, committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, told Ross he was "not totally convinced that this did not come from Mr. Bannon and that you did not have it in mind from the very beginning."

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