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Kobach declines to answer questions about conversations with Trump about census

President-elect Trump with Kris Kobach at Trump’s Bedminster, N.J., golf course in November 2016.
President-elect Trump with Kris Kobach at Trump’s Bedminster, N.J., golf course in November 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Kris Kobach refused to answer several questions from a congressional panel investigating the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, after the White House told him not to discuss his conversations with the president.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Friday disclosed the interview with Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who once headed President Trump’s short-lived voter integrity panel.

Kobach answered some questions from staffers in a closed-door interview Monday, telling them that he met with Trump and top aides to discuss the census. But Kobach ultimately refused to answer 15 questions about those communications or about whether more meetings took place, citing White House instructions, the panel said.

The White House, in a letter to Kobach the morning of the interview, said that any “communications with the president or senior White House advisers fall squarely within the scope of executive privilege.”

Committee Democrats said the White House “interfered directly and aggressively” to keep Kobach from cooperating. They argued in a memo that the move amounted to Trump trying to use executive privilege over nongovernment employees, a tactic that taken to its “logical end . . . could allow the White House to hide communications with lobbyists, special interest groups, and campaign donors.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said in a statement: “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, 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 clash over Kobach is just the latest fight between House investigators and the administration, which has sought to withhold documents and block former aides from cooperating with congressional probes. Democrats next week will vote to hold Attorney General William P. Barr and former White House counsel Donald McGahn in contempt, taking them to court in hopes of forcing compliance with delinquent subpoenas.  

The Oversight Committee will also vote next week to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt over their refusal to cooperate in the census investigation.  

The census issue has become one of Cummings’s top priorities. Democrats say the Trump administration is using the citizenship question to undercount millions of people. An undercount estimated by census officials of about 6.5 million people probably would affect states and urban areas with large Hispanic and immigrant populations, places that tend to vote for Democrats.

In the middle of the controversy was Kobach, who complained in a note to Ross in July 2017 that lack of such a question “leads to the problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”

While Ross testified that he added the citizenship question only because the Justice Department wanted it to enforce the Voting Rights Act, the committee received documents showing that he discussed the issue months before the department proposed the change, including with Kobach. 

According to the memo, the White House told Kobach not to answer questions about his discussions with the president or any White House advisers. Kobach, however, confirmed that he met with Trump on the matter, as well as with then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon. 

The panel argued that applying executive privilege to anyone the president talks to outside the White House is “a vast departure from previous precedent and obstructs the committee’s constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight of the Census.” 

Supreme Court’s conservatives appear likely to let Trump add citizenship question to 2020 Census

Oversight Republicans, however, said that Democrats “mischaracterized” the White House’s involvement in the interview and that the administration never formally asserted executive privilege. Democrats said that was only because the formal process had not played out, even as the White House in its letter to Kobach that morning suggested it would assert the formal privilege if pressed.

Panel lawyers stopped the interview at one point to phone the White House when Kobach’s attorney said he could not talk about some of his conversations with Ross, Republicans said. They asked the White House counsel’s office to tell Kobach he could discuss his interactions with the commerce chief — but the White House did not allow him to talk about his exchanges with officials working at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Republicans also sought to downplay Kobach’s influence in the census matter.

“Chairman Cummings and Oversight Democrats are once again cherry-picking facts to push a false narrative about the reinstitution of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” said Charli Huddleston, spokeswoman for committee Republicans. “Kris Kobach’s testimony shows that he was a peripheral and inconsequential player in the decision-making process and that the Department of Commerce did not rely on Kobach in making its decision.”

Kobach did disclose to the panel that he was in contact with Trump officials about the citizenship question during Trump’s campaign, earlier than previously known and about a year before the Justice Department originally proposed the question.

He also appeared to contradict an answer Ross gave the panel during March testimony. During that hearing, Ross told the panel that while he met with Kobach about the citizenship question, “I rejected the question that Kris Kobach wanted asked.” 

The wording of the question proposed and used were indeed different, but Kobach said he did not believe that his proposal was rejected. 

“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,” he said. “So I think his — I don’t remember his specific response, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, you know, absolutely no.”

Commerce spokesman Kevin Manning in a statement said “Chairman Cummings lied to the American people,” and doubled down on Ross’s statement that Kobach has no bearing on the census.

“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,” he said. “It is clear that no matter how much the Department cooperates and provides information in good faith, the Committee will lie about the facts.”

Kobach, who lost a bid for governor in Kansas last year despite Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary, has been mentioned as a potential candidate for Senate next year, to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Pat Roberts, who is retiring.

Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.