Dems: White House Blocked Kobach From Telling Us About Census Talks With Trump

Current Secretary of State Republican Kris Kobach responds to questions on stage during the Gubernatorial debate at the Kansas State Fair, Hutchinson, Kansas, September 8, 2018. (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
June 7, 2019 4:52 p.m.

The White House blocked former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach from answering Congress’ questions about his census citizenship discussions with President Trump and Trump’s aides, House Democrats said Friday.

The House Oversight Committee revealed that Kobach participated in a interview with the committee on June 3, but only after the White House repeatedly sought to limit the scope of the interview.

The White House sent several letters, according to the committee, ordering Kobach not to answer any of the committee’s questions regarding the substance of his conversations, including about the citizenship question, with President Trump or other White House officials.

The committee released one of those letters, sent by Michael M. Purpura, a deputy counsel to the President, on May 21.

The letter claimed that “Kobach’s conversations with the President and with senior White House advisers who advise the President are confidential.”

Purpura also requested that Chairman Elijah Cummings “direct your staff to work through the Office of the White House Counsel to request information of the nature you seek from Mr. Kobach.”

In a memo, the committee Democrats called B.S. on the rationale that the President’s conversations with Kobach, a private citizen, were privileged.

“These instructions represent an aggressive new tactic by the White House to stop private citizens from answering questions posed by Congress,” the memo said. “Taken to their logical end, these tactics could allow the White House to hide communications with lobbyists, special interest groups, and campaign donors.”

White House did not immediately provide a comment on the memo’s claims.

Despite Kobach declining on more than 15 occasions, according to the Dems, to answer the committee’s questions, Democrats say they got some new information from him.

Specifically, Kobach said that he discussed the idea of adding a citizenship question to census with members of the Trump campaign, though he didn’t recall talking to Trump about it during the campaign.

As he previously bragged to the Kansas City Star, Kobach also said the topic came up in meetings he had with the President, where other top White House officials were present.

When it formally announced it was adding the question in March 2018, the administration claimed it was doing because the data it would produce would enhance Justice Department’s Voting Rights Act enforcement.

Kobach’s early involvement in the push to add it casts serious doubt on that rationale, given that he has publicly and privately lobbied for it for the purposes of changing how congressional seats are doled out.

Though likely unconstitutional, such an overhaul would boost the electoral advantage of the GOP.

New evidence in the legal challenge to the question also suggests that another person involved in the push to add it, the now deceased GOP consultant Thomas Hofeller, had previously lobbied for adding the question for partisan reasons — specifically to change legislative redistricting so that noncitizens are excluded.

Kobach waffled when he was asked whether he had any conversations with the Trump administration about a citizenship question impacting the political power of Democrats or Republicans.

“So I think you need to divide the question up, Department of Commerce, where I guess the White House is not asserting its privilege, and then White House, where the White House is asserting its privilege, because basically it’s a compound question unless you divide it—” Kobach said, according to the partial transcript released by the Democrats.

Kobach did, however, tell the committee that he did not recall Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross rejecting his idea to add the question for congressional apportionment. The proposal was in an email Kobach sent Ross, whom he also talked to on the phone about the idea at least two times in 2017.

The committee memo claimed that Kobach’s answer was “inconsistent” with Ross’s own testimony in front of the committee; Ross said he “rejected” Kobach’s proposal — which would have also asked Census takers, if noncitizens, their legal status — and his “purposes.”

A Commerce Department spokesperson said in a statement the Cummings had “lied to the American people.”

“His Committee has evolved from a purveyor of empty stunts to material falsehoods. Secretary Ross testified truthfully and for nearly 7 hours in March,” the statement said. “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.”

Read the memo and the White House letter below:

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