Congress Holds Bill Barr And Wilbur Ross In Contempt

The legal and political showdown between Congress and the White House has entered into a new stage.

Continuing the political and legal battle between a White House intent on blocking all efforts to investigate its operations and a Democratic-controlled House intent on moving forward with those investigations, late yesterday the House voted to hold two members of President Trump’s cabinet in contempt over their refusal to comply with Congressional inquiries:

WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday evening to hold Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for their refusal to turn over key documents related to the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The citations for two cabinet officials, approved 230 to 198, will breathe new life into a dispute that has touched all three branches of government over why Trump administration officials pushed to ask census respondents if they were American citizens and what that question’s effect would be.

Democrats investigating the issue believe that the documents and testimony being shielded would confirm that the administration’s long-stated rationale for collecting the data — to better enforce the Voting Rights Act — was merely a cover for a politically motivated attempt to eliminate noncitizens from population statistics used to allocate political representation, diminishing Democratic power.

The Supreme Court hinted at that theory last month in a ruling about the citizenship question, when it rejected the administration’s stated reason for adding it as “contrived.” And in an unusual twist, President Trump himself all but confirmed those suspicions this month when he said of the citizenship question, “You need it for Congress, for districting.” Last week, he announced his government would give up the effort in light of the court’s decision.

Democrats said Wednesday that their investigation would continue regardless, in an effort to vindicate Congress’s oversight authority and potentially neuter future attempts to discourage participation by noncitizens in the census.

“It is bigger than the census. It is about protecting the integrity of the Congress of the United States of America,” Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight and Reform Committee chairman, said as he whipped up support on the House floor. “We need to understand how and why the Trump administration tried to add a question based on pretext so that we can consider reforms to ensure that this never happens again.”

The Commerce Department, the Justice Department and the White House all swiftly issued statements condemning the vote as a bad-faith smear that ignored administration officials efforts to cooperate. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, called the action a “ridiculous and yet another lawless attempt to harass the president and his administration.” She added, “their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds.”

Wednesday’s contempt vote formally authorized the oversight panel to take Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross to federal court to seek judicial enforcement of subpoenas for the material in question. A lawsuit is expected in the coming weeks, and the administration has maintained it is on firm legal footing in its position.

It also leveled a stinging personal rebuke to Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross by formally referring them to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. There is no real risk the department will pursue the case — Mr. Barr is the head of the Justice Department — but only once before has Congress held in contempt a sitting member of a presidential cabinet: Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s first attorney general.

The Justice and Commerce Departments maintain that in this case they have sought to fully cooperate within legal bounds with the oversight committee’s requests. Democrats, they argue, are more interested in a political clash that can attract attention from the news media and embarrass the administration than they are in actual fact-finding and prematurely abandoned the negotiating table.

Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross dispatched a last-minute letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California on Wednesday urging her to call off the vote. The materials the committee had demanded, they said, would require violation of legal privileges and executive privilege.

“The key remaining issue is how the departments and the committee will address the material that is protected by privileges that have been repeatedly affirmed by the courts,” they wrote. “There is no information to hide; there are institutional integrities to preserve.”

Republicans have backed them up at each step, arguing Democrats are abusing oversight powers to contest a reasonable policy goal. But Democrats easily defeated their efforts to kill the contempt citations and replace them with a bill requiring the inclusion of a citizenship question by law.

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? All because they don’t want a simple question on the census,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top ranking Republican on the oversight panel. “This resolution is ridiculous, and we should vote it down.”

This isn’t the first time that Barr has been held in contempt in the short amount of time that he’s been Attorney General. Last month, Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGhan were both held in contempt of Congress for their failure to cooperate with an inquiry into the Russia investigation, the allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, and the allegation that the President may have obstructed justice in his efforts to undermine the investigation itself. As was the case in that situation, in this case Congress will seek to have the parties subjected to an investigation regarding criminal contempt. However, it seems unlikely that the Justice Department is going to be inclined to accept the idea of pursuing criminal charges against the Attorney General or the Commerce Secretary. As a result, this will likely end up taking the form of another lawsuit filed by the House of Representatives that seeks to hold Barr and Ross in civil contempt and obtain a court order to get them to comply with Congressional requests for information.

This contempt citation is related to the questions surrounding the decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, an effort that was seemingly ended by the Supreme Court last month but didn’t officially end until last week when the President announced that the Administration was ending its effort to get the question on the Census form. The inquiry, though, is being conducted as part of Congress’s oversight responsibilities and aimed at uncovering the reason why the question was included in the first place. The suspicion, of course, is that the reason was rooted more in partisan politics than any legitimate purpose. That theory was bolstered by the late discovery of evidence in form of memoranda written by a consultant to the Commerce Department who had recommended including the question as a way of discouraging Latinos and other minorities from answering the Census thus resulting in an undercount that would benefit the Republican Party.

In the long run, of course, this is just another example of the stonewalling strategy that the Administration has been following with regard to essentially every effort to investigate the Administration. This has been true without regard to the subject matter or which committee is conducting the investigation, and it’s resulting in something of a logjam of lawsuits between Congress and the Administration currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Given that the Administration’s stonewalling across the board has no legitimate legal basis, one wonders when this will begin to test the patience of the Judges on that Court and what that might mean for the Administration.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    And in an unusual twist, President Trump himself all but confirmed those suspicions

    Hardly unusual. He said out loud he wants to count citizens for redistricting. He famously told Lester Holt that he fired Comey because of “this Russia thing”.

    Barr is laughing his ass off about the threat of a civil suit for contempt. If an honest history of this period is ever written, Barr will emerge as the lead villain. The deep state works for the czar.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    “Congress Holds Bill Barr And Wilbur Ross In Contempt”

    Why not? Barr and Ross have already shown that the feeling is mutual.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Just like Congress, trump holds everybody in his admin in contempt too.

  4. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Question for the lawyers here: Can the next non-Trump administration follow up on these contempt citations then? It’s obvious Trump’s DOJ isn’t going to, but would courts rule it’s irrelevant once they are out of office or would they still be enforceable?

  5. Gustopher says:

    Other than being a mark on their permanent record, does being held in contempt have any consequences?

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    If you cannot put them in jail…and the DOJ is not going to put the head of the DOJ in jail…then what’s the point?
    Democrats cannot muster the spine to do anything but wave their fists and write sternly worded letters.

  7. Guarneri says:

    Ankle biting.

  8. Scott says:

    What Congress does control is power of the purse. The House Democrats can defund some aspect of the DOJ or Commerce and leverage that to get what they want. Even at the risk of shutting down the Govt and taking the heat for that.