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Barr sees a legal way to ask about citizenship on census

EDGEFIELD, S.C. — Attorney General William Barr said Monday he sees a way to legally require 2020 census respondents to declare whether or not they are citizens, despite a Supreme Court ruling that forbade asking the question.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Barr said the Trump administration will take action in the coming days that he believes will allow the government to add the controversial census query. Barr would not detail the plans, though a senior official said President Donald Trump is expected to issue a memorandum to the Commerce Department instructing it to include the question on census forms.

The Supreme Court recently blocked the question, at least temporarily, saying the administration’s justification “seems to have been contrived.” That was a blow to Trump, who has been pressing for the government to demand information about citizenship.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s experts have said requiring such information would discourage immigrants from participating in the survey and result in a less accurate count. That in turn would redistribute money and political power away from Democratic-led cities where immigrants tend to cluster to whiter, rural areas where Republicans do well.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday that Trump wants to add the demand for citizenship information because he wants to “make America white again.”

White House replaces legal team

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is replacing the legal team that has been pursuing Trump’s efforts, putting in place a new team consisting of both career and politically appointed attorneys.

The new team, named in court papers, includes Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Morrell, a former Trump White House lawyer and law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas; Christopher Bates, who previously worked for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, and four career Justice Department attorneys, Glenn Girdharry, Colin Kisor, Christopher Reimer and Daniel Schiffer.

James Burnham, a top lawyer in the department’s civil division who had been leading the team, had told Barr that a number of people who had been litigating the case preferred “not to continue during this new phase,” the attorney general said.

The new team may find it easier to argue the administration’s new position, said an administration official, speaking only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to comment for attribution.

Barr said he didn’t have details on why the attorneys didn’t want to continue, but “as far as I know, they don’t think we are legally wrong.”

Barr said he has been in regular contact with Trump over the issue of the citizenship question. “I agree with him that the Supreme Court decision was wrong,” the attorney general said. He said he believes there is “an opportunity potentially to cure the lack of clarity that was the problem and we might as well take a shot at doing that.”

The Trump administration has argued that it wanted the question included to aid in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters’ access to the ballot box. But Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four more liberal members in last month’s Supreme Court decision, openly skeptical about that justification.

New rationale unclear

It’s unclear what new rationale for asking the question the administration might include in a presidential memorandum.

Barr said the change in attorneys working on the issue came about after Burnham approached him and “indicated it was a logical breaking point since a new decision would be made and the issues going forward would hopefully be separate from the historical debates.”

“If they prefer not to embark on this next phase, then I thought it could make sense to change,” Barr said.

Pelosi, meanwhile, said in a letter to colleagues that the full House would be moving forward with a vote to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress after the administration failed to comply with subpoenas regarding the census question.

Barr spoke to the AP after touring a federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina, where he met with inmates and staff members to discuss the criminal justice reform law that Congress approved and Trump signed into law last year.

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Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.

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