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Democrats ramp up investigations with subpoenas for Barr, Ross

House Oversight Committee to authorize subpoenas for citizenship question on 2020 census, possible abuse of security clearance policy

Chairman Elijah Cummings, right, speaks as ranking member Jim Jordan listens on Tuesday during the House Oversight and Reform Committee markup of a resolution authorizing issuance of subpoenas to White House officials over security clearances and the 2020 census. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Chairman Elijah Cummings, right, speaks as ranking member Jim Jordan listens on Tuesday during the House Oversight and Reform Committee markup of a resolution authorizing issuance of subpoenas to White House officials over security clearances and the 2020 census. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform authorized a series of subpoenas Tuesday targeting Attorney General William Barr, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and two other officials with knowledge of the administration’s proposed U.S. Census citizenship question and alleged abuse of the White House’s security clearance policy.

The committee’s subpoena resolution related to the citizenship question also demands Justice Department documents and DOJ’s communications with Ross in 2017 and 2018, when Ross proposed that the citizenship question be added to the 2020 census.

Both subpoena resolutions passed on party-line 22-15 votes.

“The committee is trying to determine the real reason Secretary Ross added the citizenship question, and the documents and testimony covered by these subpoenas are critical to answering that question,” Chairman Elijah Cummings said Tuesday at a committee business meeting.

Watch: Subpoena scuffle divides Oversight committee

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Cummings and other Democrats have alleged that Ross misled Congress when he testified last year that he proposed adding the citizenship question in 2017 “solely” at the request of the Justice Department.

Ross “orchestrated a secret campaign to add the question as soon as he took office,” including talking to former Trump chief political strategist Steve Bannon in the spring of 2017, “and engineered the request from DOJ as a pretext,” the committee has charged.

During that year-long effort, Democrats have said, a Commerce Department officials delivered a “secret memo” to the Justice Department just weeks before DOJ publicly requested a citizenship question.

Ross defended his actions Tuesday after the committee approved the resolution authorizing Cummings to subpoena Ross and his communications with DOJ.

The Commerce Department “remains committed to an open and responsive relationship with the Committee and has been nothing but cooperative with the Committee’s expansive and detailed requests for records,” Ross said in a statement.

“As of today, we have turned over 11,500 pages of documents to the Committee, and I voluntarily testified in front of the same Committee for nearly seven hours on this issue two weeks ago,” Ross said, though Democrats have balked at the significant level of redactions to those pages.

In February, a federal judge in New York stopped Ross from adding the question to the census, ruling that the Trump administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Supreme Court will decide by the end of June whether the Trump administration can add the citizenship question to the 2020 census, a quick schedule so questionnaires can be printed on time to be shipped out across America. The dispute leapfrogged its usual route to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

Critics have suggested the revival of a citizenship question could undermine the proper count in minority communities, particularly in those with large populations of undocumented immigrants.

The measure would also help Republicans redraw congressional boundaries in their favor, Democrats have claimed.

The Commerce Department has argued that the citizenship question is needed to help the Justice Department’s efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

In a tweet on Monday, the president railed against Democrats for opposing the “all important Citizenship Question” as the Oversight Committee ramps up its probe into the matter.

The census report “would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together” without the citizenship question, Trump wrote.

The Oversight Committee is also expected to authorize Cummings to issue a subpoena for White House Personnel Security Director Carl Kline to testify regarding the committee’s probe into the White House security clearance process. Trump and his administration are facing allegations that they overrode career intelligence officials’ advice not to give a security clearance to the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, in addition to two dozen other people.

The White House has stonewalled Democrats’ probe into those allegations, Cummings has said, failing to provide “a single piece of paper” to the committee.

Cummings will issue more subpoenas like the one the committee authorized for Kline on Tuesday, he wrote in a letter to the White House Monday, citing “grave reports” from a whistleblower who met with the committee in March.

That whistleblower, Tricia Newbold, an 18-year employee for the Executive Office of the President who manages security clearance adjudications, told the committee on Saturday that clearance decisions “were not always adjudicated in the best interest of national security” and that the administration overturned more than two dozen adjudications, according to Cummings letter.

Newbold was “scared to death” of approaching the committee and facing questions from Republicans as she raised her concerns about the White House’s alleged security clearance abuse, Cummings said Tuesday.

Republicans have argued that Trump is well within his rights as president to issue security clearances to anyone he pleases, regardless of career intelligence officials’ advice.

“Overturning security clearances is a choice the commander in chief can make,” Rep. Mark Green said Tuesday.

“He’s the president of the United States. It’s not against the law. It’s not against policy. There have been no leaks of national security information,” the Tennessee Republican said.

The subpoenas to be authorized by the committee Tuesday will be the second wave from Cummings so far this Congress.

In February, the committee approved — on a bipartisan 25-11 vote — subpoenas for Barr, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar for records on the Trump Administration’s child separation policy.