A former top adviser to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confirmed the secretary lied about his intentions for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, according to House testimony made public on Tuesday.
The Trump administration has blocked many of its officials from answering questions for House Democratic investigations. James Uthmeier, who served as senior adviser and counsel to Ross, appeared before the House Oversight Committee earlier this month and refused to answer more than 100 questions. Still, he “confirmed key information” about the changes to the census, according to Democratic members of the committee.
His testimony informs the committee’s recent recommendation for contempt charges against Ross and Attorney General William Barr.
As a new U.S. Census Bureau report explains, including a question on citizenship status in the census could result in as many as 9 million people not being counted as living in the United States. This undercount would largely impact racial minorities who fear that disclosing their status could lead to their deportation or that of friends, family members, and neighbors. Because the census determines redistricting for congressional representation, the resulting erasure would drastically benefit Republicans in the next decade of elections.
The House Oversight Committee is investigating whether Ross, at the behest of the Trump administration, knowingly sought to add the question to sabotage the census for partisan gain. The administration has long claimed that the question would somehow aide in better enforcing the Voting Rights Act, but Uthmeier’s testimony further undermined the validity of this rationale.
In his appearance before the oversight committee, Uthmeier revealed three facts that, even without additional context, are damning to the administration.
First, Uthmeier confirmed that both Ross and his policy chief Earl Comstock asked him to look into the legal arguments about a citizenship question in early 2017. He refused to answer any additional questions about those requests or conversations, but the mere fact that Ross was asking about the citizenship question almost as soon as he was appointed contradicts his previous claim that he added the question only after the Justice Department requested it. Uthmeier complied, drafting a memo to John Gore in the Justice Department, but he refused to discuss the memo or the extent to which it actually addressed the Voting Rights Act. Only after receiving that memo did Gore then recommend the addition of the question.
Second, Uthmeier confirmed that he had discussed the citizenship question with White House officials. Though he would not identify those officials or the extent of those conversations, it nevertheless undermines the administration’s claim that the decision to add the question was “made at the Department level.”
Third, Uthmeier shared that he had sought advice from John Baker, who he described as a “long-time mentor.” Baker has long advocated for adding the citizenship question, but never because it would help enforce the Voting Rights Act. He very much wants it to skew redistricting, and has accused liberals of seeming “more concerned about advancing the interests of illegal aliens than those of U.S. citizens.” (The Constitution calls for a count of “persons” living in the United States — not citizens.)
In their memo on Uthmeier’s testimony, Democrats on the committee noted that Baker is now the third individual who consulted the Trump administration about adding the citizenship question with partisan intentions:
This includes Republican gerrymandering expert Thomas Hofeller, who advised the Transition Team on adding a citizenship question after concluding that the question “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” It also includes former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who discussed the citizenship question with President Trump and his top advisors, and then urged Secretary Ross in an email to add a citizenship question to address the “problem” that undocumented immigrants “are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”
Uthmeier’s testimony was included in a package of documents accompanying a new report from the committee recommending to the full House that both Ross and Attorney General William Barr be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with its investigation into the citizenship question. In a statement, Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) explained, “Official after official appearing before the Committee have refused to answer questions about the real reasons behind their effort, but the mounting evidence points to a partisan and discriminatory effort to harm the interests of Democrats and non-Whites.”
The House investigation is completely separate from a court case similarly challenging the addition of the question. The Supreme Court is set to rule in that case any day now and is expected to side with the Trump administration.