Donald Trump has asserted executive privilege over subpoenaed census documents, as Democrats prepare to vote on whether to hold his attorney general in contempt.

As the House oversight committee voted on whether to hold attorney general William Barr and commerce secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of congress over their alleged effort to politicise the 2020 census, the department of justice said the president had sought to assert executive privilege over the material being sought by Democrats.

Shortly before the committee was due to vote, the department of justice told its Democratic chairman, Elijah Cummings, the administration was “engaged in good-faith efforts” to satisfy the committee's oversight needs and said the contempt vote was premature. 

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“Unfortunately, rather than allowing the department to complete its document production, you have chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote,” assistant  attorney general Stephen Boyd wrote in Wednesday’s letter. 

The Trump administration has sought to add a citizenship question to the census, something it says will help provide a better understanding of where citizens live. Critics say it could put off minorities from responding.

Mr Cummings’s committee has said Mr Barr and Mr Ross, whose department oversees the census, have been stonewalling their request for information.

It is voting to hold Mr Ross in contempt for failing to turn over documents requested through a subpoena, and a similar censure for the attorney general.

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“Both secretary Ross and attorney general Barr are refusing to comply with duly authorised subpoenas from Congress,” Mr Cummings said on Monday.

“Because they are in contempt of Congress, on Wednesday, the committee will vote to move forward to enforce our bipartisan subpoenas.”

Senior White House official Kellyanne Conway defended the president’s decision, the latest part of strategy of denials and non-cooperation Mr Trump has ordered as Democrats seek to obtain either documents, or witness testimony as they pursue a series of probes.

“The president, the department of justice, has every right to do that,” she told MSNBC.

“They're asking for documents that are privileged and I would hope that they can continue to negotiate and speak about what is appropriate and what is not, but the world is watching. This country sees that they'd rather continue to investigate than legislate.”

Holding an official in contempt of Congress, is a rare step and is seen as a censure by the legislative branch of somebody from another branch of government.

Democrats could also ask the courts to enforce a congressional subpoena, already issued. In theory, it could also lead to criminal prosecution.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press 

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