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The audacious timeline of Trump’s failed plot on the census and citizenship

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)
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Among the many scandals and near-scandals of the Trump administration, perhaps none included as much stick-to-itiveness as its effort to get census data on undocumented immigrants to help game the redistricting process.

The plot effectively bookended President Donald Trump’s four years in office, with a Cabinet official beginning the effort in February 2017 upon being sworn in. It didn’t fully come to an end until Trump’s last days in office in January 2021, when the final gambit unceremoniously fell apart, just like its predecessors.

Along the way was a sternly worded rebuke from the Supreme Court, which said the administration had misled it about its effort, later acknowledgments about the true political purpose, resistance from career officials and a series of increasingly desperate attempts to make it happen by hook or crook.

And nearly a year after Trump left office having come up short, the developments keep coming. According to documents revealed this weekend, a top Census Bureau official in September 2020 raised concerns about how much interest political officials were taking in the process. Deputy Director Ron S. Jarmin cited those officials’ “unusually” high level of “engagement in technical matters, which is unprecedented relative to the previous censuses.”

The emails reinforce what has been plainly evident for a long time: Top Trump administration officials worked hard to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population figures used to award congressional districts — despite the 14th Amendment setting the standard at “the whole number of persons” — and they leaned on processes that were supposed to be apolitical to do so.

It can all be a little confusing, so we assembled a brief timeline to explain it all.

February 2017: Wilbur Ross is sworn in as Trump’s commerce secretary. A later-revealed memo showed he began considering adding a citizenship question to the census almost immediately.

March 22, 2018: Ross testifies that it was actually the Justice Department that “initiated the request” for a citizenship question in December 2017 and that he began exploring the matter then.

March 26, 2018: The Commerce Department announces that the 2020 Census will ask respondents about their citizenship status. Lawsuits are soon filed over the move. The lawsuits argue that the question will depress response rates and is aimed at political gain for Republicans, who could use the data to try to exclude undocumented immigrants from the upcoming reapportionment process — awarding states numbers of seats according to their population — and the later redistricting process, drawing the new district lines.

June 2018: Ross’s memo is revealed, contradicting his testimony.

Three judges have found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave a phony reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. (Video: Meg Kelly, Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

June 27, 2019: The Supreme Court rejects the effort to add the citizenship question. In a particularly striking rebuke, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the justification offered — that the data was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act — was “contrived.” His decision says evidence showed Ross “was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office” and that the administration “adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process.” Roberts said it “did so for reasons unknown but unrelated to the VRA.” The decision doesn’t kill the citizenship question once and for all but gives the administration little time to make it work.

July 2, 2019: The Justice Department says it has dropped plans to insert the citizenship question on the census.

July 5, 2019: Trump appears to confirm the true goal of the census citizenship effort — not to enforce the Voting Rights Act but to game the redistricting process. “Number one,” Trump said, “you need it for Congress — you need it for Congress for districting.”

July 11, 2019: With the census question out of the picture, the Trump administration changes tacks. It orders the Census Bureau to gather data on undocumented immigrants by other means, including through the records of 20 federal agencies.

June 2020: The Trump administration, in an unprecedented step, begins creating four new high-ranking jobs for political officials in the Census Bureau, according to a later report from the New York Times. The officials would later report weekly to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. The Times also reported that career officials “quietly ordered that the appointees be given only rounded numbers — estimates, which could not be labeled official for political or other reasons.”

July 21, 2020: Trump signs a presidential memorandum in support of barring undocumented immigrants from being included in reapportionment.

Aug. 2, 2020: The administration abruptly announces it will cut the census short by a month, moving the deadline from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30. It will also require population counts to be delivered to Trump by Dec. 31. The decision raises the specter of the administration using the data to reapportion states before Trump would leave office on Jan. 20 if he lost reelection. Officials bemoan the Dec. 31 deadline as unworkable, with one saying anyone pushing such an idea “has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation.” Lawsuits are filed to block the earlier deadline.

Sept. 14, 2020: Jarmin, the Census Bureau deputy director, emails two fellow officials with a concerns about how the process is playing out ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline. Jarmin’s later-revealed memo cites political administration officials’ “unusually” high level of “engagement in technical matters, which is unprecedented relative to the previous censuses.”

Oct. 13, 2020: Amid a protracted legal fight, the Supreme Court allows the administration to halt the census count.

Nov. 19, 2020: Census Bureau officials tell then-Director Steven Dillingham that they cannot meet the Dec. 31 deadline and uphold the census’s commitment to accuracy. They say the data will not be available before Trump leaves office. Political officials including Nathaniel Cogley push for the bureau to take shortcuts, according to the Times report, possibly including seizing computers from other agencies to process data faster.

December 2020: The White House indicates that if the Census Bureau can’t determine whom to count as an undocumented immigrant based upon the available data, administration officials can decide that question based upon the data provided, according to the Times report.

Early January 2021: With Trump’s time in office running short, Dillingham declares the undocumented-immigrant data to be the bureau’s No. 1 priority, according to later-revealed whistleblower complaints. He allegedly sets a Jan. 15 deadline, five days before Trump is due to leave office, and proposes offering cash bonuses to make it happen. (Dillingham confirmed the latter to the Times.) The Times report states that the order was delivered orally and not in writing and that it was “the breaking point for the career officials who had carried out every other directive.”

Jan. 12, 2021: The Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General sends a letter disclosing the whistleblower complaints.

Jan. 13, 2021: The Census Bureau says it has ceased efforts to supply the data on undocumented immigrants.

Jan. 18, 2021: Dillingham resigns.

Jan. 20, 2021: Trump departs office without the census data and the ability to reapportion congressional seats accordingly.