Trump abandons effort to add citizenship question to census

By Caitlin Oprysko and Anita Kumar

President Donald Trump has dropped his effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census — a sudden backtrack on one of his administration's biggest legal battles and a swift course reversal after a week of insisting he would fight till the end.

Instead, the president will issue an executive order directing various agencies to obtain citizenship data by tapping existing databases and documents.

"We will leave no stone unturned," Trump declared from the Rose Garden.

The move caps more than a week of conflicting messages from the White House over how it would proceed on the issue after the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from including the citizenship question on the decennial form. Even as of this morning, the path forward was still in flux, White House officials said. Ultimately, though, administration officials felt their hands were tied on the issue, they said, despite Trump's unyielding desire to add the question.

The decision will, at least temporarily, turn down the temperature on a divisive issue that has pitted Trump against civil rights groups, and state and city officials, who warned that the question would decrease participation among immigrant communities, diminishing their political power and jeopardizing federal funding in mostly Democratic-leaning areas. The census results are used to determine the disbursement of federal aid as well as to draw congressional districts.

It's unclear what legal challenges, if any, Trump's new approach will invite, although the concept of centralizing personal information into large government databases has occasionally proven controversial in the past. And civil rights groups quickly signaled that they would closely review Trump's order.

Even in retreat, Trump struck a defiant tone, proclaiming, “We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population.”

And he mocked his opponents who have fought the changes to the census.

“Are you a citizen of the United States of America? Oh, gee, I'm sorry, I just can't answer that question,” Trump asked dryly as he launched into his prepared remarks. “There used to be a time when you could answer questions like that very easily.”

But Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr essentially acknowledged that the Supreme Court's ruling — and the time crunch to complete the census — meant there was no route to getting the question on the survey, which hasn't featured a citizenship query since 1950. The Commerce Department has also already begun to print the questionnaires without the citizenship section.

The ruling and timeline, Barr said, “closed all paths.”

"We simply cannot complete the litigation in time to carry out the census," he added.

Trump called the outcome “deeply regrettable.”

Still, the president vowed that his new approach would actually yield more detailed information on the citizenship status of those currently residing in the country.

The order will direct “every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens in our country."

It's an approach that researchers at the Census Bureau have been telling Trump for months would be more fruitful than altering the census.

In fact, Trump's plan appeared to be nearly identical to what career Census Bureau scientists proposed as an alternative last year after political appointees floated the idea of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The career officials argued that people don't always answer questionnaires honestly, and some decide not to respond when the citizenship issue is raised. Relying on existing administrative records would offer a better count and prove less costly, they said.

Trump appeared to suggest that the information sharing he was proposed would be more robust than previously considered, but the details remained murky.

Trump called it “imperative” that the government possess “a clear breakdown of the number of citizens and non-citizens” in the U.S., calling that kind of data “vital to formulating sound public policy, whether the issue is health care, education, civil rights, or immigration.”

As recently as Thursday morning, Trump had been expected to take executive action directing his officials to add the question to the census, a step that would have come just days after the Justice Department said it would abide by the Supreme Court ruling. In the Rose Garden, Barr insisted that such a move to add the question by "executive fiat" was never under consideration and that that reporting to the contrary had been done in "the hysterical mode of the day."

“This has been based on rank speculation and nothing more,” he said.

Still, Trump’s latest move might simply take the fight in another direction.

“It doesn’t matter what they do, I’m sure it will get litigated," Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said earlier on Thursday. "And that’s why I’ve said all along that I have no problem, that question on there is perfectly appropriate. They need to figure out a legal way to do it."

At least one civil rights group affirmed that prediction.

Dale Ho, who argued the Supreme Court case as the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, warned that his organization will be prepared to scrutinize the details of Trump’s new plan for compiling citizenship data and how he plans to use it, adding that the ACLU will be ready “to assess their legality.”

The Trump administration has been scrambling on the issue since shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in late June against Trump’s efforts to include the citizenship question. The court said the administration’s stated rationale for adding the question — to better protect minority voting rights — “seems to have been contrived” and was less an “explanation” than a “distraction.”

Trump admitted on Thursday that redistricting concerns have played a role in his push to get citizenship information, saying that the data he hopes to gather “is also relevant to administering our elections” because “some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter eligible population.”

Ho blasted Trump's rationale, as well as his week of bombastic messaging on the topic.

“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,” he said. “Now he’s backing down and taking the option that he rejected more than a year ago. Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration.”

The high court’s decision two weeks ago sent the legal battle back to the lower courts, where three federal judges, have blocked the attempt to add the question.

Trump on Thursday expressed pessimism about the fate of the question in those courts, dismissing them as "extremely unfriendly to us."

In practical terms, Trump’s team had essentially been trying to find a way to satisfy one man: Chief Justice John Roberts. He sided with the court's liberals to deep-six the government’s attempt to add the question and appears to be the only member of the court’s majority that would have been open to new legal rationales.

Former federal judge Michael Luttig, whose views have been guiding the administration’s thinking, said earlier Thursday that he believes Trump would have been on sound legal footing with an executive action.

"If the president were to do an executive order directing that the citizenship question be added to the 2020 census, relying for that executive order on his full Article II powers as the president of the United States, then … that would more than satisfy the Supreme Court which has wanted nothing more than a rational justification for the question,” Luttig said.

The idea of using executive action to force the issue of a citizenship question first publicly emerged in late June in a Washington Post column by conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, who quoted Luttig’s legal rationale.

Civil rights groups, states and cities opposed to adding the question had signaled that were ready to fight any renewed attempt to add the question. They’ve long argued that adding the question was actually intended to boost Republicans politically and to undercut Latino representation.

Eliana Johnson, Burgess Everett and Josh Gertsein contributed to this report.