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Attorney General Barr tells SC reporters he's found a legal recourse on Census question

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EDGEFIELD — In a visit to South Carolina on Monday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said the Trump administration will present a legal work-around that will allow a question on citizenship to be added to the 2020 Census.

Speaking to reporters after a scheduled stop at a federal prison, Barr said, “I think, over the next day or two, you’ll see what approach we’re taking and I think it does provide a pathway for getting the question on the census.”

He did not provide details in his brief remarks. 

Barr also expressed little concern for the pending testimony of former special counsel Robert Mueller to federal lawmakers next week on his investigation into U.S. election interference by the Russian government.

With Mueller scheduled to testify before two House committees July 17, Barr said he was "disappointed to see him subpoenaed," after special counsel had expressed reluctance to testify.

Barr said he doesn't think the testimony serves a purpose after Mueller said he would stick to the content of his original report.

“It seems to me the only reason for doing that is to create some kind of public spectacle,” Barr said. “If (Mueller) decides he doesn’t want to be subjected to that, the DOJ will certainly back that.”

Barr’s remarks came as he toured Edgefield Federal Correctional Institution, along with South Carolina Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott to tout a piece of criminal justice reform legislation, called the First Step Act, signed by President Donald Trump in December.

While Barr would not detail the administration's plans regarding the census questionnaire, a senior official said President Donald Trump is expected to issue a memorandum to the Commerce Department instructing it to require census respondents to say whether they are citizens, The Associated Press reported Monday.

The Supreme Court in June delivered a blow to Trump's push to have the government ask about an individual's citizenship on next year's census. U.S. Census Bureau experts have said demanding such information would discourage immigrants from participating in the survey and result in a less accurate census. 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."

Barr said he has been in regular contact with Trump over the issue.

"I agree with him that the Supreme Court decision was wrong," said Barr. 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 the question was being added 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, saying the administration's justification for the question "seems to have been contrived."

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

As the administration grapples for a way around the Supreme Court's ruling, the Justice Department has shaken up its legal team handling the matter.

"Since these cases began, the lawyers representing the United States in these cases have given countless hours to defending the Commerce Department and have consistently demonstrated the highest professionalism, integrity and skill inside and outside the courtroom," department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

A department official told the AP the new team would consist of both career and politically appointed attorneys. James Burnham, a top lawyer in the department's civil division, would no longer be leading the litigation team, said the official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter ahead of the court filing.

An administration official said the new legal team may find it easier to argue the administration's new position. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak on the record.

Barr visited the prison in Edgefield as part of the roll out for an assessment tool used in measuring inmates' eligibility for earlier release. Inmates will receive more credit for a clean disciplinary record and for participation in rehabilitation programs, like work readiness.

Federal prisons can begin using the tool July 19.

"This is a big deal for criminal justice reform," Graham said, though he did not have an exact number for how many federal inmates housed in the state will benefit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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