WASHINGTON — President Donald 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.
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 reiterate plans the Commerce Department 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.
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 long-standing 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 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 New York, 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 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.
The United States has never had a central registry of citizens and noncitizens, and in theory 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.
Following Trump to the Rose Garden podium, his attorney general, William 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.”