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Wilbur Ross addresses controversy over citizenship question on census

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Tuesday that his story explaining why he revived a citizenship question for the forthcoming 2020 census has not been inconsistent.

“The papers have interpreted it as inconsistent,” Ross told Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief, Andy Serwer, during the All Markets Summit in Washington, DC.

“What triggered the real study, what triggered the process that led to the determination to [add the question] was the letter from the Department of Justice,” Secretary Ross said. On December 12, 2017 the Justice Department formally requested the question be added to the census.

Plaintiffs in six federal lawsuits disagree with Ross’s account, claiming he misrepresented the motivation behind the question in order to avoid disclosing its purpose to help the Republican party. The plaintiffs say the question was added to discourage undocumented non-citizen residents from participating in the census. The U.S. Census Bureau falls under the purview of the Commerce Department, which Ross leads.

In March 2018, Ross told several congressional committees that the Justice Department initiated inclusion of the question. At the time, he said he was not aware of any involvement from White House officials.

Emails obtained by NPR show that Ross communicated with White House officials in concerning the citizenship question in May 2017 prior to the Justice Department’s request.

“I am mystified why nothing have been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question,” Ross wrote in an email to then-Commerce Department official Ellen Herbst and Commerce official Earl Comstock, NPR reported.

Comstock replied: “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question.”

In October, Ross filed a court document stating that he recalled having conversations about the citizenship question with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Bannon suggested that Ross contact Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, according to the filing. Kobach has spoken out against illegal immigration.

“We ourselves released that there had been a conversation with Steve Bannon, there had been a conversation with Kobach,” Ross told Yahoo Finance, adding that the ultimate point of the question was to help the administration enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The Trump administration is fighting to bar Ross’s testimony in one of the lawsuits over the citizenship question, and the Supreme Court has ruled that he does not have to testify in the case — for now at least.

Alexis Keenan is a New York-based reporter for Yahoo Finance. She previously produced live news for CNN and MSNBC and is a former litigation attorney.

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