Commerce Denies Ross Misled Congress On Bannon Call On Census Citizenship Question

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18:  U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross attends a meeting of the National Space Council at the East Room of the White House June 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to establish the Space Force, an independent and co-equal military branch, as the sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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The Department of Commerce is claiming that when Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress that he was not “aware” of any communications with the White House about a Census citizenship question among him and his staff, he was referring specifically to a campaign fundraising email touting support of the question.

Ross’ congressional testimony — in a response to a question from Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), in front of the House Appropriations committee — is being scrutinized now that Ross has admitted that he “recalls” a Spring 2017 phone call with then-White House advisor Steve Bannon where Bannon asked Ross to discuss the question with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The admission came in a Thursday discovery response as part of the lawsuits challenging the inclusion of the question.

“In testimony with Rep. Meng, Secretary Ross was responding to a question about an RNC campaign email, not a direct question about the citizenship question,” a Commerce spokesperson said in a statement Thursday evening. “He 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.”

Meng had provide Ross a copy of the March 19, 2018 email, which came from the Trump campaign. Her question for Ross, however, gave no indication that she was asking specifically about a discussion in the context of the email. Her lead-up to the question mentioned concerns about the “politicizing”of the census, and she explained that that was why she was showing him a copy of the email.

“Has the president or anyone in the White House discussed with you or anyone on your team about adding this citizenship question?” she asked.

“I’m not aware of any such,” Ross said.

Meng, in an interview with NPR Thursday evening, dismissed the Commerce Department’s explanation that Ross was speaking specifically about the email.

“It was pretty clear that I was asking about the addition of this question,” Meng said. “It’s very hurtful to our country and the bipartisan process that we as Congress members and the American public believe so highly in, that he would lie not just once but multiple times about communications that he had.”

Those suing Ross over his move to add the citizenship question are also jumping on the fact that Ross has flip-flopped on whether he remembered speaking to Bannon about the question.

In August, the Commerce Department had told the challengers in the Census citizenship case in New York,  as part of the discovery process, that it “cannot confirm that the Secretary spoke to Steve Bannon regarding the Citizenship Question,” a court filing Thursday afternoon, after his more recent admission, revealed.

The Thursday court filing was an effort by the challengers to lift a temporary hold the Supreme Court placed on deposing Trump administration officials, including Ross.

“Despite having sought and received a temporary stay of discovery from this Court, Defendants submitted discovery responses changing their story yet again at 12:06 p.m. today,” the challengers wrote in their filing, adding that the admission “only confirms the district court’s conclusions about the need for extra-record discovery and depositions.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the top House Oversight Democrat who has asked the Commerce Inspector General to investigate the decision to add the citizenship question, said in a statement to TPM that the “Trump Administration should not be using the levers of justice to conceal its own wrongdoing.”

“Based on this new evidence, it is now clear that both the Justice Department and the White House were part of Secretary Ross’ secret campaign to orchestrate the addition of a citizenship question to the census,” Cummings said. “But now the Justice Department is trying to block depositions for the very same Trump Administration officials who engaged in these actions—and then misled Congress.”

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