Politics & Government

White House interfered with Kobach’s testimony in congressional probe, Democrats say

In this November 2016 photo, then-President-elect Donald Trump greeted then-Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.
In this November 2016 photo, then-President-elect Donald Trump greeted then-Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. Washington Post file photo

The White House interfered with a congressional interview of Kris Kobach about his role in adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, according to a memo from the House Oversight Committee.

Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, gave a closed-door interview to the committee Monday as part of its probe into the Trump’s administration’s plans to introduce the question, a move which opponents say will hinder efforts to obtain accurate population counts in minority communities.

The White House instructed Kobach not to provide any substantive details about his conversations with the president or senior White House officials, according to a memo released Friday by the House Oversight Committee.

“The White House cited no valid legal authority or constitutional privilege for instructing Mr. Kobach not to answer the Committee’s questions, but instead offered only a vague claim that these conversations were ‘confidential,’” the memo states.

Kobach declined to answer questions 15 times during his interview, according the memo that was prepared by the committee’s Democratic staff.

The White House did not immediately comment on the memo. It was released as the House prepares to possibly hold Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in contempt for refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas related to the oversight investigation.

Kobach defended the legal reasoning behind his refusal to answer questions and the White House’s use of executive privilege despite the fact that he was not a paid staffer for the president.

“The precedents of the United States Supreme Court make it quite clear that the executive privilege covers communications between the president and all of his advisers. That includes both advisers who are paid by the federal government and advisers who are not,” Kobach said in a statement.

“The White House is absolutely correct in asserting executive privilege regarding communications between me and the President, and between me and senior White House staff.”

Despite his refusal to answer some questions, Kobach did provide new information about his role in adding the citizenship question, according to a partial transcript of his testimony made public Friday.

Kobach first claimed credit for the policy in a 2018 interview with The Kansas City Star in which he said that he had pitched the idea to Trump shortly after he was inaugurated. Kobach referenced the interview during his testimony.

During his testimony to Congress, Kobach revealed that he first brought up the idea during the 2016 campaign.

He testified that he did not recall telling Trump about the idea until after the election, but had conversations about the idea with campaign officials.

Kobach testified that following the inauguration he discussed the idea with the president, strategist Steve Bannon and Trump’s then-chief of staff Reince Priebus.

The Kansas Republican had served as immigration policy adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign. He later worked on Trump’s transition team and was appointed vice chair of a short-lived presidential commission on voter fraud before launching his unsuccessful bid for Kansas governor in 2018.

Kobach has championed stricter immigration policies for years and has been one of the faces of a private effort to build a border wall in recent months. He is currently weighing a run for U.S. Senate.

Kobach’s role in the Census controversy is key for the House investigation. His emails contradict the public rationale provided for adding the question to the survey of U.S. residents taken every 10 years to determine population counts and reapportion legislative districts.

Kobach wrote to Ross in July of 2017 that the lack of a citizenship question on the Census “leads to the problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”

During his 2018 interview with The Star, Kobach singled out California as a state that had its congressional representation inflated because of illegal immigrants counted in the Census.

According to the House Oversight Committee, Kobach’s email contradicts Ross’ claim that the administration sought to add the citizenship question to help with its enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

“Mr. Kobach’s focus on excluding certain immigrants when apportioning legislative districts was similar to the rationale set forth in a newly-discovered study by a Republican gerrymandering expert, Thomas Hofeller, the year before the Presidential election. One of the principle conclusions of this study is that excluding certain immigrants in legislative districts—rather than counting all persons—‘would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites,’” the committee staff wrote in the memo.

Ross has testified that he rejected Kobach’s rationale about the reason to add the question to the Census, but Kobach told lawmakers that he didn’t recall Ross specifically telling him he disagreed.

“If he had said flatly no, I don’t, whatever, you know, I think that’s a bad idea, I probably would have remembered that. So I think his—I don’t remember his specific response, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, you know, absolutely no,” Kobach said.

A Republican committee spokesman said in a statement Friday that the committee chair, Rep. Elijah Cummings, and other Democrats “are once again cherry-picking the facts to push a false narrative” about the citizenship question. The spokesman said Kobach’s testimony shows he was “a peripheral and inconsequential player in the decision-making process and that the Department of Commerce did not rely on Kobach in making its decision.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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