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Oversight committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is in a dispute with the Trump administration. He's threatened to hold two Cabinet officials in contempt; DOJ says it's withholding materials.
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Oversight committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is in a dispute with the Trump administration. He's threatened to hold two Cabinet officials in contempt; DOJ says it's withholding materials.
Credit: AP

Justice Dept. Cites Executive Privilege In Keeping Census Documents From Democrats

The separation-of-powers standoff between Congress and the executive branch deepened on Wednesday over a dispute about access to materials involving the controversial citizenship question planned for the 2020 census.

The Justice Department notified the House Oversight Committee that it's withholding documents sought by the panel's chairman because it says they're shielded by executive privilege — the doctrine that permits an administration to conceal some of its internal workings.

The letter from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd arrived electronically at the Capitol at the same time Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., had convened a hearing at which the committee appeared on track to vote to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress.

Boyd's letter blamed Cummings for the invocation of privilege. The Justice Department has already provided tens of thousands of documents and access to witnesses but nothing is ever enough, officials say — and Democrats' threats of contempt mean these talks can't continue.

Cummings and the Democrats blame Barr, Ross and the administration for what they've called an effort to "stonewall" their investigation.

Critics argue that Trump's administration wants to use a question about citizenship on the 2020 census to suppress some responses, including those of Latinos, and Democrats say they want unredacted communications to see how the question was discussed inside the government.

The oversight committee adjourned and planned to reconvene later on Wednesday after absorbing the message from the Justice Department. [Copyright 2019 NPR]