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House Democrats claim White House tried to block Kobach interview

CBS News logo CBS News 6/7/2019 Grace Segers
Kris Kobach wearing a suit and tie © Getty Kris Kobach

Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee claim that the White House tried to prevent Kris Kobach from speaking with the committee to discuss the investigation into the citizenship question in the 2020 census. Kobach, the former secretary of state of Kansas, advised the Trump administration on adding the question to the census.

The committee released a memo on the previously undisclosed interview, which occurred on Monday. Democrats on the committee claim that the White House "interfered directly and aggressively" in the interview by instructing Kobach not to answer any questions about his communications with President Trump and White House advisers on "the real reasons they added the citizenship question."

Democrats believe that adding a question about citizenship to the census could lead to undercounting in big cities and other typically Democratic-leaning areas where immigrants reside, which could affect the congressional apportionment for primarily Democratic states.

This suspicion was bolstered by the revelation that a Republican expert on gerrymandering had advocated for adding the question in order to benefit "Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites." A report released this week found that the census could undercount more than 4 million people, particularly in Latino and African American communities. 

The committee's memo also claimed that the White House had attempted to exert executive privilege over Kobach, despite the fact that he is a private citizen and not a current or former executive branch official.

"The Trump Administration's expansion of Executive Privilege to apply to anyone the President talks to—including those completely outside the government—is a vast departure from previous precedent and obstructs the Committee's constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight of the Census," the memo said.

The memo continued that Kobach did provide some new information, such as confirming "on the record certain elements of his conversations with the President and top White House aides." However, he declined to answer questions on whether he had had additional meetings with the president and advisers than previously disclosed.

In a statement, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said: "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,'" Cummings continued.

The committee is scheduling a vote for next week to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary William Ross in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide documents related to the census in response to congressional subpoenas.

Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report.

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