WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday abandoned his attempt to place a question about citizenship on the 2020 census, and instructed the government to compile citizenship data instead from existing federal records.
Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was giving up on modifying the census two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked the Trump administration over its effort to do so. Just last week, 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,” 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 merely to accelerate plans the Census Bureau had announced last year, making it less a new policy than a means of covering Trump’s retreat from the composition of the 2020 census form.
A frustrated-sounding 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.
The Trump administration has argued that including the question on census forms is an important part of its efforts to protect the voting rights of the nation’s minority residents, but the Supreme Court rejected that justification as a “contrived” pretext.
Government experts have 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 in the census.
Relying on existing federal data sources could provide a clearer picture of how many people living in the United States are citizens without distorting census participation. But some Democrats complained on Thursday that the public debate itself might have sown fear among immigrants in the country and could taint their view of the census, even if it does not include a citizenship question.
Following Trump to the Rose Garden podium, his attorney general, William P. Barr, said that any administration move to modify the census would have survived legal review, but only after a lengthy process that would have jeopardized the administration’s ability to conduct the census in a timely manner.
“Put simply, the impediment was a logistical impediment, not a legal one,” Barr said. “We simply cannot complete the litigation in time to carry out the census.”
Thursday’s announcement was an anticlimactic end to a showdown that Trump escalated, in seeming defiance of the Supreme Court’s June ruling on the census question, with a July 3 post on Twitter announcing that his administration was “absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
Even as he waved a white flag on substance, Trump was still firing angry rhetorical shots.
“As shocking as it may be, far-left Democrats in our country are determined to conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst,” he said. “They probably know the number is far greater, much higher than anyone would have ever believed before. Maybe that’s why they fight so hard. This is part of a broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen and is very unfair to our country.”
But Trump’s critics relished the moment as an example of punctured hubris. Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement that Trump’s “attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper.”
“He lost in the Supreme Court, which saw through his lie about needing the question for the Voting Rights Act,” said Ho, who argued the Supreme Court case. “It is clear he simply wanted to sow fear in immigrant communities and turbocharge Republican gerrymandering efforts by diluting the political influence of Latino communities.”
Potentially opening a new front in the battle over citizenship, Trump also said states could use the data he has ordered to be collected to draw voting districts in a new way. States currently draw districts so that they contain equal numbers of people, whether or not they are eligible to vote. Trump suggested that states will soon have information to allow them to draw districts based on equal numbers of eligible voters.
“Some states,” he said, “may want to draw state and local legislative districts, based upon the voter eligible population.”
If people who were ineligible to vote were evenly distributed, the difference between counting all people and counting only eligible voters would not matter. But demographic patterns vary widely.
Places with large numbers of residents who cannot vote — including children, immigrants who are here legally but are not citizens, unauthorized immigrants and people disenfranchised after committing felonies — on the whole tend to be urban and to vote Democratic. Districts based on equal numbers of eligible voters would generally move political power away from cities and toward older and more homogeneous rural areas that tend to vote for Republicans.
Whether districts based on equal numbers of eligible voters are permitted by the Constitution is an open question, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her 2016 majority opinion in Evenwel v. Abbott.
“We need not and do not resolve whether, as Texas now argues, states may draw districts to equalize voter-eligible population rather than total population,” Ginsburg wrote.
When the Evenwel case was argued, opponents of counting only eligible voters said there was a significant practical obstacle: There was no reliable data on which to base such districts. Trump contended on Thursday that his plan would address that issue.
Opponents of the citizenship question swiftly condemned Thursday’s announcement, calling Trump’s position largely a face-saving measure.
“This news conference was total propaganda,” said Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the chief executive of the Leadership Conference.
“The government already has access to all of this citizenship data through administrative records, and already studies it,” Gupta said. “Trump just didn’t want to admit defeat.”