On Monday, a man was sentenced for a crime he committed in the U.S. Capitol. Although many headlines cheekily identified him as “Florida Man,” his name is Paul Hodgkins, and he received an eight-month sentence for his part in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

On the same day, we learned that another man who almost certainly committed crimes in the U.S. Capitol will not be facing any repercussions for his actions. His name is Wilbur Ross, and he was secretary of commerce under President Donald Trump.

There’s a temptation to view what Ross did as simply politics, which in a way it was: When he repeatedly made false statements to Congress under oath about the administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, Ross was operating in the service of a broader lie being repeated by multiple Trump officials and advocates. But that makes it worse, not better.

And to be clear, though Ross will apparently receive no legal sanction, there is simply no doubt that making false statements to Congress is exactly what he did. Here’s a succinct explanation of what just happened:

President Donald Trump’s commerce secretary misled Congress about why he sought to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, according to an investigation from the Office of Inspector General, but Trump’s Justice Department decided not to prosecute.
The watchdog agency’s probe showed that Wilbur Ross misrepresented the reason for adding a citizenship question to the census questionnaire during two appearances before House committees in March 2018, according to a letter sent last week to congressional leaders by Inspector General Peggy Gustafson.
It is a federal crime to make false statements before Congress. The results of the inspector general’s investigation were presented to the Justice Department during Trump’s administration, but department attorneys declined prosecution in January 2020.

I can’t say why they decided Ross’s case did not warrant prosecution, though it’s true that people are not often prosecuted for lying to Congress. That doesn’t mean it’s unheard of, however. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former factotum, pleaded guilty in 2018 to lying to Congress on Trump’s behalf. Figures in the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals were also indicted for that crime.

Upon taking office, the Trump administration decided it wanted to add a citizenship question to the census for the first time in 70 years. The reasons were plain: The administration was doing its best to intimidate immigrants, both documented and otherwise, and a citizenship question would make them fearful about answering the census. That would make their communities look smaller, which would then deprive them of resources and political power.

But the administration couldn’t just come out and say that. So it came up with one of the dumbest cover stories in an administration that was full of them: adding a citizenship question to the census, they said, was necessary for the Justice Department to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act. It made no sense at all, and nobody believed it for a moment.

But on two occasions, Ross was questioned under oath about it and made specific factual assertions — assertions that were false. Ross testified that his department (Commerce has authority over the Census Bureau) only pursued the citizenship question because it was asked to do so by the Justice Department.

But emails obtained in a lawsuit revealed that not only was that false, but Ross and his aides had pressured a reluctant Justice Department to essentially create a bogus paper trail that would give support to the lie that the whole thing was the department’s idea.

Ross also claimed under oath that he hadn’t talked to anyone at the White House about the issue; that too was false.

Given the level of documentation, it’s likely prosecutors could have gotten a perjury conviction, although of course you never know what might happen at trial. So why did Justice take a pass?

As yet we don’t know, and the department doesn’t typically say much of anything about decisions not to prosecute. But Attorney General William Barr would certainly have had to sign off on the question of whether to prosecute a sitting cabinet member. Knowing everything that characterized Barr’s tenure as attorney general, and the entire atmosphere of the Trump administration, the idea that he would have allowed such a prosecution to go forward seems almost ludicrous.

But it wouldn’t be too surprising to hear that even career prosecutors in the department figured it wasn’t a serious enough crime to justify indicting someone so high-ranking. And that’s just the trouble: When you communicate that people can perjure themselves before Congress with impunity, the result will be more perjury.

And it reinforces the idea that in politics, anything is justified — manipulating the system, lying to the public, lying under oath, anything — and you might well get away with it. At this particular moment in our history, is that a message we want to send?

This story has been updated to reflect that the decision not to prosecute Ross was made by the Department of Justice during the Trump administration, not the Biden administration.

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