Trump Caves On Citizenship Question

After a year of fighting, the Administration has given up on its effort to get a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

After spending the better part of a year fighting to get a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, and continuing that fight even after the Supreme Court issued a ruling that appeared to make any such effort futile, President Trump announced yesterday that he was abandoning the effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Instead, he said, the government would use existing data to prepare a count of the number of citizens in the United States:

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday abandoned his quest to place a question about citizenship on the 2020 census, and instructed the government to compile citizenship data from existing federal records instead, ending a bitterly fought legal battle that turned the nonpartisan census into an object of political warfare.

Mr. Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was giving up on modifying the census two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked his administration over its effort to do so. Just last week, Mr. Trump had insisted that his administration “must” pursue that goal.

“We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population,” Mr. Trump said. But rather than carry on the fight over the census, he said he was issuing an executive order instructing federal departments and agencies to provide the Census Bureau with citizenship data from their “vast” databases immediately.

Even that order appears to merely reiterate plans the Commerce Department announced last year, making it less a new policy than a means of covering Mr. Trump’s retreat from the composition of the 2020 census form.

A frustrated-sounding Mr. Trump struck a sharply combative tone at the opening of his remarks, saying that his political opponents were “trying to erase the very existence of a very important word and a very important thing, citizenship.”

“The only people who are not proud to be citizens are the ones who are fighting us all the way about the word ‘citizen,'” he added.

Mr. Trump made the clearest statement yet that his administration’s ultimate goal in obtaining data on citizenship was to eliminate noncitizens from the population bases used to draw political boundaries — a longstanding dream in some Republican circles. Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce who spearheaded the effort to add the citizenship question, had long insisted the data was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

“This information is also relevant to administering our elections,” said Mr. Trump. “Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts, based upon the voter eligible population.”

Maps based only on the citizen population would reflect an electorate that is more white and less diverse than the nation at large — and generally more favorable to the Republican Party.

Stanton Jones, a lawyer with the firm of Arnold & Porter who helped represent opponents of the question in a federal lawsuit in Manhattan, accused the Trump administration of waging a multimillion-dollar court battle that from its inception was a plot to advance Republican political interests.

“The citizenship question was always a cynical ploy to rig American elections for partisan and racially discriminatory reasons,” he said.
Government experts predicted that asking the question would result in many immigrants refusing to participate in the census, leading to an undercount of about 6.5 million people. That could reduce Democratic representation when congressional districts are allocated in 2021 and affect how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending are distributed.

In a statement, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the department would “promptly inform the courts” that the government would not seek to include a citizenship question on the census.

The United States has never had a central registry of citizens and noncitizens, and in theory Mr. Trump’s order could result in one. But data sharing is supposed to go only in one direction: from other agencies into the Census Bureau but not back out.

The Census Bureau for decades has relied on data from other agencies to check the accuracy of their head counts. For the purposes of obtaining citizenship data, the Census Bureau could identify American citizens with some precision by mining immigration data from the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and data from programs that require citizenship to participate, such as Social Security numbers and some taxpayer identification numbers. Other citizenship data come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which asks a small fraction of the population questions — including on citizenship — every month.

Although noncitizens often falsely respond that they are citizens on the survey, data from other agencies would help weed out those responses. That would provide a reasonably accurate portrayal of citizenship even down to census blocks, the bureau’s smallest population unit, said John Thompson, who ran the bureau from 2013 to 2017.

While the Census Bureau would effectively have data on the citizenship status of most people in the country, the only information that could be released under federal law would be stripped of any identifying details, said Barbara Anderson, a University of Michigan demographer and past chairwoman of the Census Bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee.
Even anonymous statistics that might help outsiders identify someone — such as data on some census blocks as small as apartment houses — are scrambled in a process designed to guarantee confidentiality.

“It’s all extremely protected by privacy laws,” Ms. Anderson said. “Even if the Census Bureau put together administrative records on citizens and noncitizens on an individual basis” — which would not necessarily be compiled into some sort of central registry — “for that to be given to anybody would require a major new law.”

The Census Bureau has said that it intends to provide anonymous data on citizenship to states in 2021, in a data file separate from census results.

Aaron Blake at The Washington Post comments:

Over the past month and a half, President Trump has set in motion plans to strike Iran, ordered nationwide immigration raids, threatened punitive and imminent tariffs on Mexico and said he would fight to get a citizenship question on the census that was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Each time, he launched extensive planning, created angst even among his own officials and some supporters, and devoted significant government resources to preparation.

And each time, he ultimately pulled the plug.

Trump’s renewed push for a 2020 Census citizenship question is the latest example of something he launched and then just as quickly scrapped. 


It’s a hell of a way to do business.

Any of these last-minute about-faces could possibly be justified, by themselves. There was bipartisan praise for Trump’s restraint on Iran, even as Trump’s explanation didn’t exactly make sense. (He said he called it off at the last minute after asking for a loss-of-life assessment, which should have been available at the start of the process.) The immigration raids were delayed amid concerns by some and hopes of a bipartisan deal but appear to be on again in the next few days (for now!).

The Mexico tariffs were called off after Mexico agreed to help stem the flow of immigrants headed northward, but Trump gave it (and the U.S. government) only about 10 days to figure things out. A deal was reached with less than two days to go.

The totality of all of these things, though, suggests a president who is perfectly willing to set the government in motion on something that he either doesn’t intend to follow through on or can’t make up his mind about. It doesn’t really matter the scale or how many government servants might ultimately waste time preparing for something big; everything is subject to change.

But what if he had just … decided what he wanted to do before setting things in motion? The census citizenship question is a great example of something where there was really no need to send everyone running around setting their hair on fire. Nor was there a need for nine days of Justice Department lawyers being tortured while trying to make Trump’s apparent Twitter whim a reality.

It’s a recipe for a lot of people in very influential positions being pretty upset at and frustrated by the president they serve.

The President’s announcement came after a day of speculation that he may attempt to force what would effectively be a Constitutional crisis by issuing an Executive Order that would attempt to direct the Commerce Department to include the question regardless of the previous court rulings in the matter. It marks the end of a legal saga that began roughly a year ago when the Administration first announced that it would be placing a question inquiring about citizenship on the 2020 Census, the first time such a question would appear on the questionnaire since the 1950 Census some seventy years ago. That effort was immediately subject to a variety of legal challenges around the country that argued that the question would harm efforts to get an accurate count of the number of persons in the country as required by the Constitution. This resulted in a number of court rulings enjoining the Commerce Department from placing the question on the ballot.

Those cases eventually led to the Supreme Court, which late last month issued a ruling largely upholding the rulings by the lower courts barring the Administration from including the question on the ballot. The Justices left the door open slightly, though, to the possibility that the question could be included if the Commerce Department offered a plausible reason for its inclusion. At the same time, though, the Justices agreed with the lower court ruling finding that the justifications offered by the Administration were both insufficient and not credible. Nonetheless, the manner in which the case was decided and remanded for further proceedings left open the possibility that the government might have been able to get the question on the ballot.

Less than a week after the Supreme Court’s ruling, though, the Trump Administration appeared to concede the issue when it informed the District Courts that the printing of the Census form without the citizenship question was going forward as of July 1st, which had been the deadline previously provided by government attorneys to the lower courts and Supreme Court in their effort to get the legal issues decided on an expedited basis. Less than a day later, though, the government appeared to change its position on the issue after President Trump said on Twitter that he still wanted the question on the Census. At the end of last week, the Justice Department had filed paperwork with both courts that appeared to indicate that it was going forward with efforts to get the effort to get the question on the ballot. The announcement late yesterday brings that process to an end, and the Justice Department has announced that it would be informing the respective District Courts that the government is ceasing its efforts to get the question on the Census. This will presumably lead to the cases being dismissed.

Effectively, the decision by the President to abandon the effort to get the citizenship question on the ballot is an admission on his part that the Administration never had a legitimate basis for including the question. This is revealed by the fact that the Executive Order that Trump ended up issuing yesterday effectively directs the agencies of the Executive Branch to work together to put together an accurate count of the number of citizens in the country. This essentially confirms an argument that the opponents of the question have been making from the beginning, that the Federal Government already has all the data it needs to determine the number of citizens, both native-born and naturalized, in the United States. Given this there was never a legitimate reason to put the question on the Census form itself and that the real intention was to discourage Latino Americans and other demographic groups from participating in the Census, a result that would then result in an undercount that would presumably benefit Republicans in the reapportionment and redistricting battles that will quickly follow the release of the data from the Census.

In any case, this brings an end to the legal battle over the citizenship question, but it’s likely that we’ll see future battles regarding use of citizenship data in the reapportionment and redistricting process in 2020 and 2021. That, however, will have to wait for another day.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Law and the Courts, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Another day, another tantrum, another time out.

  2. Teve says:

    Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, who argued the U.S. Supreme Court case in this fight, said in a statement late yesterday, “Trump’s attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper…. Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration.”

    That assessment is plainly true. Team Trump spent months trying to rig the 2020 census in such a way as to undermine Latino communities, and in the process, administration officials – including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – were caught lying about the purpose of the scheme.

    Their rampant incompetence contributed to Trump’s legal defeat, though the president went out of his way to make matters considerably worse. After losing at the high court, the administration surrendered, only to un-surrender soon after when Trump reacted badly to unfavorable press coverage of his defeat.

    The White House spent several days scrambling, raising the prospect of the president possibly defying a Supreme Court ruling, only to have Trump surrender again yesterday afternoon.

    The Republican specifically declared yesterday afternoon that he and his team were “not backing down,” which was amusing, because the president was obviously backing down.

    For the right, there’s probably a degree of frustration over the Trump administration’s rampant incompetence. After all, if Wilbur Ross hadn’t been caught lying about the purpose of the scheme, and if the White House could’ve managed to keep its story straight, this plan probably would’ve worked.

    Indeed, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts effectively said as much in his ruling, explaining that Team Trump failed, not because a citizenship question was legally impermissible, but because the administration didn’t have a coherent, justifiable reason for adding the question to the census.

    As Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman explained very well yesterday, “In a presidency full of pratfalls and screw-ups, there have been few efforts characterized by quite the combination of boundless bad faith, obvious dishonesty and sheer incompetence as this one.”

    -steve benen

  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Mexico Pays.
    End Birthright Citizenship.
    Repeal Obamacare
    Replace with “better” Heath Care.
    Enact Term limits.
    Invest in Infrastructure
    Bring Back Waterboarding
    Jobs for the working class.
    Muslim Ban from immigration
    Deduct Health Care premiums from taxes
    Bring back Mt. McKinley
    Release tax returns (after audit is complete, of course)

    Yeah… it’s funny that Monty Python has a commentary that is perfect for this:

    Brave Sir Robin Donald ran away.
    Bravely ran away.
    (“I didn’t!”)
    When danger reared it’s ugly head,
    He bravely turned his tail and fled.
    (“I never!”)
    Yes, brave Sir Robin Donald turned about
    And gallantly he chickened out.
    (“You’re lying!”)
    Swiftly taking to his feet,
    He beat a very brave retreat.
    Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin Donald!

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    This is why I didn’t join in with all that talk of a Constitutional crisis yesterday. I’ll wait until we get there. Trump usually backs down on these things.

    OT, but somewhat relevant: Mark Bowden wrote up the Mueller report in an easy-to-follow narrative. It shows a lot of what I suspect went on with the citizenship question: Trump wanting to do things, his people telling him you can’t do that or simply refusing to follow his orders. It’s less of the Corleone crime family and more of the keystone cops.

  5. dmichael says:

    ““It’s all extremely protected by privacy laws,” Ms. Anderson said. “Even if the Census Bureau put together administrative records on citizens and noncitizens on an individual basis” — which would not necessarily be compiled into some sort of central registry — “for that to be given to anybody would require a major new law.””
    Tell that to the Japanese-Americans who were rounded up and put into concentration camps during WWII by secret use of the 1940 U.S. Census data.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    Reading over that version of the Mueller report reminds me that we’ve had two political disasters since the turn of the century–the Bush presidency and the Trump presidency…and both of them were artificially induced…

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    To some degree, I understand why this change makes sense to Conservatives (and white supremacists, proud boys, Klansman, and others, but…). In the early days of our nation, there were significant groups of people who were essential to the states they lived in but were not citizens per se. Moreover, there was no incentive to grant them citizenship in the foreseeable future. This situation carried on into the early 20th Century–issei Japanese were prohibited from gaining citizenship as had the Chinese laborers who built the railroads before them. But it was important to the various and sundry states to have these people counted in the census.

    In the modern era, this is no longer the case. The nation doesn’t need the cooperation of plantation states to form a Constitutional Republic. Indeed, those very same plantation states are the ones who come out behind on the count in the modern era as they no longer have the huge numbers of resident non-citizens that they had in the past. This is a discussion that is important to have, but it is important to have it in the format that represents what the discussion is really about, too. Let the sunshine in and discuss this properly and honestly.

  8. DrDaveT says:


    Tell that to the Japanese-Americans who were rounded up and put into concentration camps during WWII by secret use of the 1940 U.S. Census data.

    As it happens, new laws related to government use of data on individuals have been passed since 1940. The Privacy Act of 1974 springs to mind…

  9. Bob@Youngstown says:

    I have suspected for some time that what Trump’s administration was pushing was forcing residents to answer the question:

    Are you an undocumented alien?

    Requiring that question to be answered directly (under penalty of law) of every single resident, along with their name and address at least puts that information into the hands of the Census Bureau.

    From there, it’s a short trip to getting a compliant Congress to agree that it is appropriate to release the names and locations of those having admitted law violations to appropriate law enforcement entities.

    (BTW, I really don’t think that Trump really cares if Texas loses a few congressional districts that would be reapportioned to Montana)

  10. michael reynolds says:

    Dear Trumpaloons: your cult leader is a wimp.

  11. Tyrell says:

    I have an idea. Start a nationwide movement: every person who does the Census will write beside their name: “I am a US citizen and proud of it” They could also put their number under their name.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    @Tyrell:..I have an idea.

    Four dangerous words…

    Not every legal resident in the United States is a citizen. See Department of Homeland Security documentation.
    The census wants legal noncitizen residents to be counted. Much as many of them would like to they can not claim to be US Citizens on the census form because they would be lying if they did.

    What number?
    Didn’t you just write in a post recently that you were against any national ID number?

  13. Bob@Youngstown says:

    What appears to be IMPERATIVE! (Trumps Tweet) is that he have an accurate number for (his term) ‘illegal aliens’

    Here is the answer:
    Census Bureau published (in 2017) number of residents who are non-citizens, 22,337,765 with a margin of error of 0.5% at 90% confidence.
    Immigration and Naturalization should know the number of non-citizens who are in residence legally.

    Subtract one number from the other and Viola! the number of illegal aliens!

    I’ll send my bill to the White House /s/

  14. Tyrell says:

    @Mister Bluster: Okay, not my best ideas or thinking. It may have been the result of three hours of pushing a lawn mower in 100-degree heat, 75% humidity.
    The number would be a phone number.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    You need the number of a lawn guy or you’ll end up needing the number of a cardiologist.

  16. Hal_10000 says:

    One of the funny things about this is that I remember, year ago, when it was conservatives who were complaining about the long form census, calling is a tyrannical invasion of privacy and saying that the Census should only count the number of people in a household and that was it.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    Conservative ideology is infinitely adaptable so long as the result is more money, and more power to sht on the ‘other.’ Evangelical Christians have embraced ‘grab ’em by the pussy’ and ‘some very fine people’ and payoffs to porn stars. It’s their Bible training. They’ve been raised on a book where you can find justification for absolutely anything, no matter how heinous, and have learned to nod along with any loud, white, male asshole who strokes their self-pity, their racism and misogyny.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    @Tyrell: Seriously, I agree with Michael. It’s dangerous to do any physical exercise for 3 hours in 100 degree humid weather.


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