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House Oversight memo says White House 'interfered' with Kobach interview on census

The House Oversight Committee's Democratic staff charged in a memo on Friday that the White House "interfered directly and aggressively" with a previously undisclosed interview the panel conducted Monday with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach related to the Trump administration's push to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census.

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Clare Foran
CNN — The House Oversight Committee's Democratic staff charged in a memo on Friday that the White House "interfered directly and aggressively" with a previously undisclosed interview the panel conducted Monday with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach related to the Trump administration's push to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census.

The memo, which was sent by the majority staff of the Democratic-led panel to committee members and released publicly, said the White House "interfered directly and aggressively with the Committee's interview by instructing Mr. Kobach not to answer any questions about his communications with the President and White House advisors about the real reasons they added the citizenship question."

The majority staff said in the memo that the White House "sent several letters, including on the day of the interview, vastly expanding its previous assertions of Executive Privilege to apply to Mr. Kobach—a private citizen who did not work for the Trump Administration when these communications took place."

A letter from deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura to committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, on May 21 addressed the committee's request to interview Kobach about the citizenship question, saying, "Mr. Kobach's conversations with the President and with senior White House advisers who advise the President are confidential, and he would not be permitted to discuss those conversations during a transcribed interview. This position is consistent with governing Supreme Court precedent and the long-standing practice of administrations from both political parties."

On Monday, White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to Cummings on the same topic, which said, "As you know, we have previously instructed Mr. Kobach's attorneys that, given applicable legal principles, Mr. Kobach should not answer any questions during his interview about his communications with the President or senior White House advisers."

The letter went on to say, "Mr. Kobach's communications with the President or senior White House advisers fall squarely within the scope of executive privilege, and the Committee has not demonstrated that its interests justify overriding a privilege claim."

The White House declined to comment for this story.

In a statement on the release of the memo, Cummings said, "These aggressive efforts by the White House to block Mr. Kobach from cooperating with the Committee raise significant new questions about what the Trump Administration is concealing—and why."

He added, "They also cast doubt on the Trump Administration's claims that the decision to add the citizenship question was 'made at the department level' rather than at the White House."

The release of the memo came just hours after Cummings indicated on Friday morning that he will proceed with a contempt vote against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over a dispute about documents related to the citizenship question.

The Department of Justice said Thursday that it was working to get the committee more documents in response to a subpoena for the information, but that some materials the panel has requested will continue to be withheld. Cummings had said Monday that he would postpone the contempt vote if the Commerce and the Justice departments produced the materials the committee had previously requested by Thursday.

Memo says Kobach disclosed some new information

The committee staff memo says Kobach nevertheless disclosed some new information to the panel related to efforts to add a citizenship question to the census.

The Commerce Department announced in March of last year that a citizenship question would be included in the upcoming 2020 census. The move has sparked controversy and a high-stakes court battle. Critics who oppose adding the question contend that asking about citizenship status will lead to an inaccurate count if undocumented individuals decline to complete the questionnaire.

Census data serves as the basis for decisions about how to allocate federal resources and draw congressional districts. The survey is intended to count the entire US population, not just citizens.

The Commerce Department has said it is adding the citizenship question at the request of the Justice Department in order to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

The House Oversight Committee memo says Kobach said "he discussed adding a citizenship question far earlier than previously known -- during the presidential campaign more than a year before any request from the Department of Justice." The memo quotes Kobach as having stated, "I certainly discussed the issue with people during the campaign."

It also says that "Kobach confirmed on the record that he met personally with key White House officials just days after the President's inauguration to discuss adding the citizenship question -- including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Senior Adviser Steve Bannon, and even President Trump himself."

The memo also says that the way Kobach described his communications with Ross "appeared inconsistent" with the secretary's testimony in March in front of the House oversight panel.

A Commerce Department spokesperson strongly pushed back, saying in a statement to CNN that "Secretary Ross testified truthfully and for nearly 7 hours in March" and accusing Cummings of lying.

"Today, Chairman Cummings lied to the American people. His Committee has evolved from a purveyor of empty stunts to material falsehoods," the spokesperson said in a statement, adding, "Secretary Ross testified truthfully and for nearly 7 hours in March. The record shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the question the Secretary reinstated to the 2020 Census is not the series of questions Kobach asked him to consider. Not even close. It is clear that no matter how much the Department cooperates and provides information in good faith, the Committee will lie about the facts."

A spokesperson for House Oversight Committee Democrats responded in an email, "People can read the transcript of Mr. Kobach's interview and decide for themselves. If the Department has nothing to hide, it has a simple way to prove it: stop withholding the documents, drop the false claims of cooperation, put an end to this cover-up, and start complying with this bipartisan subpoena."

During the March hearing, Cummings questioned Ross about his communications with Kobach. Addressing the secretary, Cummings said at one point, "Mr. Kobach, you spoke to him on July the 14th, 2017, and Mr. Kobach emailed you and asked you to add the citizenship question." Ross said in response to the questioning from the committee chair, "I rejected the question that Kris Kobach wanted asked," and later said, "I have no control over what Kris Kobach or anyone else puts in an email sent to me."

The memo references Ross' statement during the hearing that he "rejected the question" from Kobach and then later states, "However, when Mr. Kobach was asked during his transcribed interview with Committee staff about Secretary Ross' reaction to his proposal and his rationale regarding the addition of the citizenship question, he denied that Secretary Ross rejected them."

Instead, the memo says Kobach "told Committee staff: If he had said flatly no, I don't, whatever, you know, I think that's a bad idea, I probably would have remembered that. So I think his—I don't remember his specific response, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't, you know, absolutely no."

The memo provides excerpts from a transcript of the interview with Kobach, but not the full transcript.

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