Wilbur Ross Discloses Bannon Chat, Apparently Contradicting What He Told Congress

(Bloomberg) -- Wilbur Ross spoke with Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, before including on the 2020 census a question about people’s citizenship, the Justice Department said in a court document that appears to contradict what the commerce secretary told Congress.

The disclosure came in a lawsuit by more than a dozen states, cities and advocacy groups seeking to block the U.S. from asking the question, claiming it’s discriminatory and designed to reduce the accuracy of the count by cutting participation. The Justice Department’s filing, which was posted online Thursday by the New York Attorney General’s office, was in response to questions from the plaintiffs.

Ross has denied speaking to Bannon, a vocal opponent of immigration, telling a congressional committee in March that he was “not aware” of any discussions with the president or anyone else in the White House about the citizenship question.

“Has the president or anyone in the White House discussed with you or anyone on your team about adding this citizenship question?” Ross was asked by Representative Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, on March 20.

“I’m not aware of any such,” Ross replied.

The disclosure may aid the states in their lawsuit seeking to block the question. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a tweet that the disclosure was the first acknowledgment by the Trump administration that “Secretary Ross in fact spoke to Steve Bannon while he was at the White House about the citizenship question in Spring 2017 -- contrary to what he told Congress.”

“The story keeps unraveling,” she added.

New York, ACLU Urge Supreme Court to Allow Ross Deposition

Commerce Department spokesman Kevin Manning said the Justice Department’s filing didn’t contradict Ross’s congressional testimony, which he said related to a Republican National Committee email instead of the census itself.

"He was responding to Representative Meng’s question and truthfully answered that he had not discussed the RNC email with the White House," Manning said in an emailed statement.

Ross or his staff also spoke to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who headed a failed voter-fraud task force for Trump, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department said in the document that confirmed what it had previously said were possible communications with Bannon.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Tuesday temporarily blocked the plaintiffs from questioning Ross under oath, and Underwood on Thursday filed court papers seeking to reverse Ginsburg’s order. A federal judge in Manhattan last month ordered him to submit to questioning, saying he has first-hand knowledge related to the lawsuit’s claims and was "personally and directly involved in the decision, and the unusual process leading to it, to an unusual degree."

In addition to Bannon, Sessions and Kobach, Ross or his staff in 2017 discussed the census question with Sessions’s aide Mary Blanche Hankey, Justice Department lawyers John Gore and Danielle Cutrona, and two others, according to the document.

The plaintiffs asked for the identity of senior officials Ross spoke to and for other information about the Justice Department’s involvement. While disclosing the names, U.S. lawyers objected to revealing other details, citing attorney-client and deliberative-process privileges.

The case is New York v. U.S. Department of Commerce, 18-cv-2921, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.