WASHINGTON — Rep. Elijah Cummings said Thursday that he has “very serious questions” whether U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was truthful in explaining how the Trump administration came to develop a census question about citizenship status.
Ross told Congress several times last year that the question was added for the 2020 population count because the U.S. Department of Justice requested it.
But Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said during a committee hearing that after Ross testified last year, “new documents showed that he was engaged in a secret campaign to add the citizenship question from the very first days after he arrived at the Department of Commerce.”
Ross “was working directly with officials at the highest levels of the Trump administration to force this issue through, including Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions,” Cummings said.
Bannon is a former strategist for President Donald Trump, and Sessions was U.S. attorney general.
Ross, who sat alone at a long witness table facing Cummings, was asked by Cummings if he would like to withdraw his previous testimony.
“I testified truthfully to the best of my ability in response to what my understanding of the questions were,” Ross replied.
In April 2018, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined 17 of his counterparts across the country in suing the Trump administration over the citizenship question, which critics say could drive down immigrant participation and lead to an undercount of states’ populations.
Frosh, a Democrat, said at the time that both documented and undocumented immigrants might not fill out a census form sent to their address that asks about citizenship for fear the information would be used against them.
The issue is now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ross told Cummings that the citizenship question was included because the Justice Department wanted help to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The law is designed to safeguard the electoral process against racial discrimination. The Justice Department said it needs “a reliable calculation” of voting-age populations in areas where voting rights violations are suspected.
“Obtaining complete and accurate information for us in determining citizen-age voting populations to enforce the Voting Rights Act is a legitimate government purpose,” Ross said in prepared testimony.
He said that individual information obtained from the population count “is not a tool for immigration” authorities and that it would be kept private.
Responding to questions, Ross frequently told committee Democrats he was not authorized to describe conversations with administration officials, prompting several Democrats to accuse him of “stonewalling” or “dodge and delay.”
“I felt like you were trying to pull a fast one on me, I’ve got to be honest with you, man,” Cummings said near the end of the hearing, which lasted more than six hours.
Cummings told Ross he was giving him until Tuesday to produce any documents or responses that the committee had requested, or else he might summon the secretary back.
After hearing the first hour of Ross’s testimony, Rep. Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, said Ross should resign.
“You lied to Congress, you misled the American people and you are complicit in the Trump administration’s intent to suppress the growing political power of the non-white population,” Clay said. “You have zero credibility and you should, in my opinion, resign.”
The census is conducted every 10 years to measure the nation’s population. The data is used to determine the number of U.S. House seats per state.
Opponents of the citizenship question have said it could cause an undercount in areas mostly populated by Democrats.