The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration changed its story on the census citizenship question 12 times in four months

Over the past four months, the Trump administration has changed its story on adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census multiple times. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

This post has been updated.

Originally, it was supposed to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act. Then the Supreme Court said that was a pretext.

It would not be used for immigration enforcement. Then it could be used to deal with the “burden” of undocumented immigrants.

It would not be used for congressional redistricting. Then it could be.

The administration would not challenge the Supreme Court ruling blocking a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Then it decided it would. That is, until President Trump changed the story for at least the 12th time in the past four months and said his administration would no longer add the question, instead gathering the data via other means.

Trump’s push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census again threw his administration for a loop. Trump and his officials have repeatedly undercut one another’s public statements as well as the administration’s legal arguments for adding a citizenship question. You can watch them do this over and over again in the video above.

In March, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said no census data could be used for immigration enforcement.

Then, earlier this month, acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Ken Cuccinelli said the citizenship question would help deal “financially and legally with the burden of those who are not here legally.” Forty-eight hours later, Cuccinelli reinterpreted that claim.

“That’s taken on an aggregated basis. That’s not individualized data that comes to us,” he said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

After the administration asserted for months that the citizenship question would not be used for congressional redistricting, Trump said on July 5 that the question was needed for redistricting.

Asked two days later whether Trump had undercut his administration’s legal argument — that redistricting was not a reason for adding the question — Cuccinelli simply said that “there are many reasons” for adding it.

Last week, a day after Ross and the Justice Department said the census form would be printed without the controversial question, Trump contradicted them in a tweet and said the census would include the question.

Just hours later, two Justice Department attorneys phoned in to a conference call with a federal judge to explain the administration’s next steps.

One attorney, Joshua Gardner, told the judge that the administration would continue printing the 2020 Census without the citizenship question, saying, “As of now, the basis for the citizenship question is firmly enjoined, vacated and does not exist.” Minutes later, the second attorney weighed in.

“We at the Department of Justice have been instructed to examine whether there is a path forward, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision, that would allow us to include the citizenship question on the census,” Assistant Attorney General Joseph Hunt said. “We think there may be a legally available path under the Supreme Court’s decision. We’re examining that, looking at near-term options to see whether that’s viable and possible.”

Four days later, the Justice Department announced it was swapping out its lawyers on the census case. No reason was given.

Twice in the past week, Trump suggested he could simply add the citizenship question to the census via executive order. On Thursday, he issued an executive order that would not add a citizenship question to the census.

After Trump spoke Thursday, Attorney General William P. Barr admonished the media for reporting Trump’s own words.

“Some in the media have been suggesting in the hysterical mode of the day that the administration has been planning to add the citizenship question to the census by executive fiat without regard to contrary court orders or what the Supreme Court might say,” Barr said. “This has been based on rank speculation and nothing more.”