Trump drops census effort, announces new plan to ‘count’ noncitizens

‘The 2020 reelect is a big factor in this battle for Trump,’ GOP strategist says

President Donald Trump speaks at the “Salute to America” ceremony in front of the Lincoln Memorial on July 4. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks at the “Salute to America” ceremony in front of the Lincoln Memorial on July 4. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
Posted July 11, 2019 at 6:00pm

President Donald Trump lost a battle Thursday when he dropped his bid to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, but by reviving the effort in dramatic fashion he amassed more ammunition for his coming reelection campaign.

During an unrelated social media forum event at the White House, Trump criticized federal judges and the Supreme Court for blocking his attempt to add the question, calling it a “left-wing” effort to erode rights. And he teased a “solution.” Once in the Rose Garden to address the citizenship matter, he declared, “we are not backing down.”

“We will defend the right of the American people to know the full facts about the population, size of citizens and noncitizens in America,” he said. “Knowing this information is vital to formulating sound public policy.”

What he announced, however, was not census-related. He announced an executive order that mandates each federal department give the Commerce Department every record about noncitizens and citizens who are on U.S. soil to get “an accurate count of the noncitizen population.” He vowed to “leave no stone unturned.”

Attorney General William Barr, who spoke after Trump, called the administration’s decision a “logistical” one rather than a “legal” one. That’s because, he said, officials determined there was “no way” to finish expected court cases before the census count must begin.

Trump’s executive order parallels an option suggested by the Census Bureau before Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision last year to add a citizenship question to the census. A report from the agency’s chief scientist pointed to the possible use of Social Security and other records to identify citizens.

The Commerce Department has increased its reliance on administrative records more broadly for this census cycle, aiming to fill in information that was left out of census questionnaires.

Trump and other Republicans have argued the citizenship data can serve several purposes, including for state legislative and congressional redistricting.

Any state that draws lines based on citizenship data will likely find itself in court though, national redistricting lawyer Jeff Wice said Thursday. On top of that, Wice said using data from administrative records or the American Community Survey “is likely to generate litigation on its own.”

“You cannot use the American Community Survey for redistricting,” Wice said. “The data is just not robust or accurate enough to do redistricting.”

Wice also pointed to the work of the late Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller, who has been cited by challengers as a source of the citizenship question, to underline his point

In a study of Texas state legislative districts submitted in the litigation over the question, Hofeller wrote that ACS data would not be detailed enough to draw legislative districts. At smaller levels of geography, ACS data, Hofeller wrote, becomes so unreliable that the margin of error is greater than the population.

Capping off a day

Trump’s announcement capped a chaotic day at the White House. Staff issued Thursday’s public version of the president’s schedule late Wednesday night; it included nothing about the citizenship question or the census. But shortly after 7 a.m., the president began rewriting the “daily guidance” on Twitter, including announcing he would say something about the census at a 5 p.m. news conference.

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A source with knowledge of the White House’s planning first signaled Trump would sign an executive order or action to green-light the addition of a citizenship question. That was around 9 a.m.

But by 3 p.m., the same source acknowledged the president was strongly considering dropping the effort, calling internal West Wing debates “fluid” — just two hours before Trump was to publicly address the matter. The same source pointed to federal court decisions and said the president was mulling if they would be hurdles too high to clear.

White House aides were scurrying late into the afternoon to figure out just where they would hold the event. A late-afternoon thunderstorm did not turn back the president’s insistence to hold it outdoors in the Rose Garden.

On the one hand, Trump again stepped on his staff’s plans for the day — they had organized a social media summit to praise conservative online commentators and rail against alleged censorship of them by big tech companies.

But on the other, the president again manufactured drama around another immigration-related policy matter, an issue that matters greatly to his conservative base.

Other factors out there

Once again, Trump turned to immigration when he sensed major political trouble — this time from a child sex-trafficking scandal involving former friend Jeffrey Epstein that has engulfed him and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. (Sixty-eight percent of Republicans surveyed earlier this year by the Pew Research Center said immigration should be a top issue for the administration and Congress.)

“The 2020 re-elect is a big factor in this battle for Trump. Obviously, President Trump wants the Republican base to believe that he is fighting tooth and nail for them,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said. But to say that is the only factor would be a drastic mischaracterization.

O’Connell, also an adjunct professor at George Washington University, offered some insights about Trump’s apparent strategy.

“Remember why Democrats don’t want the [citizenship] question: They don’t want people to have hard data on exactly how many illegal immigrants could possibly be in this country. This would destroy their whole narrative,” he said, contending that Democrats underestimate the number of undocumented migrants inside the United States. “Remember, this data could help Trump change public opinion about his immigration policies should he win reelection.”

Trump was in campaign mode even before the census announcement, turning the social summit into a mini reelection rally. He railed against the Democrats’ “Green New Deal,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, and at one point accused Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates of wanting to go beyond socialistic policies like those in some failing countries, saying: “Our country is going to go one way, or its going to head to Venezuela.”

He used the official event in the East Room to chide Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has gained ground on Democratic 2020 front-runner Joe Biden, over her alleged claims of Native American ancestry. Trump called her “Pocahontas,” something he typically saves for Twitter, campaign rallies and media interviews. He even opened the door to criticism that he was encouraging violence when he mocked groups like the Black Panthers and Antifa, saying they’re “never around” when he attends a “Bikers for Trump” event.

As he often does, the president kept the intrigue simmering during the social media summit. But he might have tipped his hand when he mentioned the 5 p.m. “census meeting” and criticized the federal and Supreme Court judges who blocked an earlier citizenship question attempt.

“They fight us all the way,” he said of those jurists. “They don’t like us that much.”

Earlier, Democratic lawmakers essentially shrugged off reports that he intended to sign an executive order or action intended to get the question on the census.

“I don’t know. He has an injunction,” the California Democrat said when asked if she thinks Trump could use an executive order to impose the citizenship question on the census.

She noted that the printing of the census has already begun and “we fully expect the process to go forward.” Trump’s efforts will continue to be challenged in court, Pelosi said.

“He’ll try all kinds of things,” she said, “But he’ll have to get around that injunction.”

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The president’s effort to add a citizenship question faced several court challenges. Litigants in New York, including the New York attorney general, had a pending motion for an injunction against any citizenship question on the census. In Maryland, advocacy groups have started discovery on claims the question’s addition was discriminatory.

The White House’s census contractor already has started printing the survey — that’s more than 1.5 billion documents. Had Trump moved forward, it could have taken additional funds to reprint them on a short deadline.

Thursday, in many ways, summed up Trump’s ever-changing and -turbulent presidency.

On numerous occasions, he has contradicted major policy announcements by his own staff and Cabinet officials. Trump, a former reality television host and executive producer, has kept official Washington guessing for over two years, a trend that continued Thursday.

Michael Macagnone and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.