WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump claimed executive privilege Wednesday to refuse to hand over documents to opposition Democratic lawmakers investigating a question about citizenship on next year's once-a-decade U.S. census.
Trump's action came just ahead of a scheduled vote by the House of Representatives Oversight Committee on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for their refusal to comply with subpoenas from the panel for the census-related information.
"I think it's ridiculous that we would have a census without asking" about citizenship, Trump told reporters at the White House.
The House panel's chairman, Congressman Elijah Cummings, delayed the contempt vote until later Wednesday to give the committee's 42 members time to consider Trump's executive privilege claim.
But he questioned why Trump was asserting executive privilege just before the contempt vote when the subpoenas for information were issued two months ago.
"This begs the question," Cummings said. "What is being hidden?"
"This does not appear to be an effort to engage in good-faith negotiations or accommodations," he said. "Instead, it appears to be another example of the administration's blanket defiance of Congress' constitutionally-mandated responsibilities."
The Justice Department said it has already turned over thousands of pages of documents related to the citizenship question and was continuing to negotiate about more documents. It called the contempt of Congress vote "unnecessary and premature."
The dispute, however, is the latest between the White House and the Democratic-controlled House over documents related to several investigations opposition lawmakers are conducting about Trump, his finances, the 2016 election and policies he has adopted during his two-and-a-half-year presidency.
The citizenship question — a query asking people living in the United States what nationality they are — would be simply answered by more than 300 million people, easily the U.S. majority. They are Americans by birth or naturalization.
But for others — perhaps 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. — the question is more problematical, with demographers and Democratic critics of Trump fearful that non-U.S. citizens will skip the Census altogether if the question is included, leaving the government with an inaccurate count.
Some migrants have voiced fears that if they answer the citizenship question and they are in the U.S. without proper documentation, the information could be used by immigration agents to detain and deport them to their homelands.
In the U.S., the decennial census is used to allocate $800 billion in funding for government programs throughout the 50 states and also to decide how many representatives each state should have in the House for the next 10 years.
The Trump administration says the citizenship question, which has been asked during past census-taking, but not since 1950, is necessary to better enforce the country's Voting Rights Act.
Later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule whether the question can be included in the census.
But in May, after the high court heard legal arguments for and against use of the question, evidence emerged that it was added to the census specifically to give Republicans and non-Hispanic whites an electoral advantage. The evidence came from the files of a prominent Republican redistricting strategist, who, before his death last August, had helped lay the groundwork for including the question in the census.
One of Trump's White House advisers, Kellyanne Conway, said the administration was not hiding anything related to the motives behind the citizenship question and is awaiting the Supreme Court ruling.