Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recalled talking with former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions about adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, according to a document filed Thursday by the Justice Department, though he testified to Congress that he had not done so.
The document, part of a multistate lawsuit against the Trump administration over the question, said Ross recalls Bannon calling him in the spring of 2017 to ask whether Ross would speak to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach about ideas for a possible citizenship question on the census.
The document appears to contradict Ross’s testimony to Congress this year. When asked at a hearing on March 20 by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y) whether the president or anyone in the White House had discussed the citizenship question with him, Ross said, “I am not aware of any such.”
Commerce Department spokesman Kevin Manning, in an emailed statement Thursday, said Ross was responding to “a question about an RNC campaign email, not a direct question about the citizenship question.” Manning added that Ross “was in fact looking at the RNC email that the Congresswoman provided him during the hearing as he was responding to Rep. Meng’s question and truthfully answered that he had not discussed the RNC email with the White House.”
The document was released as the Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether Ross can be deposed in the case. In August, a U.S. District Court judge ordered Ross and John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, to sit for depositions.
An appeals court ruled Tuesday that the deposition could take place, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a stay on that decision pending a response from the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs filed the reply Thursday, and Ginsburg can either rule on it herself or refer it to the full court.
The document is a response to questions sent by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood (D) in the discovery phase of the multistate lawsuit seeking to block the administration from adding a citizenship question to the decennial count. It is one of six legal challenges to the question, which Ross announced March 26 would be added to the survey to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Democratic lawmakers and immigrant rights groups have blasted the plan, saying it will make immigrants less likely to fill out the form, leading to a more costly and less accurate census. Six former census directors and the Census Bureau’s internal analyst also have said that the question would harm the count.
Internal documents released in the New York case over the summer indicated that Ross was pushing for a citizenship question more actively, and much earlier, than his sworn testimony indicated.
Democrats have said they will try to legislate against the question if they gain control of the House or the Senate in next month’s midterm elections. They could also request the Justice Department prosecute Ross for perjury.
“It is a crime to lie to Congress, and it is within the attorney general’s purview to prosecute it,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, an ethics watchdog group.
“Under Jeff Sessions’s own policy, the Department of Justice should be prosecuting the most serious readily provable crime in all cases, so any divergence from that policy here would be a political exception to the rule. It is uncommon for an attorney general to prosecute its own Cabinet member, but this is a pretty clear-cut case of a false statement.”