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Trump officials interfered with the 2020 census beyond cutting it short, email shows

A newly released Census Bureau email written during former President Donald Trump's administration — when Wilbur Ross, shown at a 2020 congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., served as the commerce secretary overseeing the census — details how officials interfered with the national head count.
Andrew Harnik
A newly released Census Bureau email written during former President Donald Trump's administration — when Wilbur Ross, shown at a 2020 congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., served as the commerce secretary overseeing the census — details how officials interfered with the national head count.

Updated January 15, 2022 at 6:50 PM ET

Former President Donald Trump's administration alarmed career civil servants at the Census Bureau by not only ending the 2020 national head count early, but also pressuring them to alter plans for protecting people's privacy and producing accurate data, a newly released email shows.

Trump's political appointees at the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau, demonstrated an "unusually" high level of "engagement in technical matters, which is unprecedented relative to the previous censuses," according to a September 2020 email that Ron Jarmin — the bureau's deputy director — sent to two other top civil servants.

At the time, the administration was faced with the reality that if Trump lost the November election he could also lose a chance to change the census numbers used to redistribute political representation. The window of opportunity was closing for his administration to attempt to radically reshape the futures of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College.

Despite the 14th Amendment's requirement to include the "whole number of persons in each state," Trump wanted to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census counts used to reallocate each state's share of congressional seats and electoral votes.

While the former president's unprecedented push did not reach its ultimate goal, it wreaked havoc at the federal government's largest statistical agency, which was also contending with the coronavirus pandemic upending most of its plans for the once-a-decade tally. The delays stemming from COVID-19 forced the bureau to conclude that it could no longer meet the legal reporting deadline for the first set of results and needed more time.

The administration's last-minute decision to cut the counting short sparked public outcries, including a federal lawsuit that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

But its interference in other areas related to the 2020 census largely flew under most radars. The newly released email — first reported by The New York Times and obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School through an ongoing public records lawsuit — details the wide scope of its attempts to buck the bureau's experts and tamper with the count.

According to the document, the agency's career civil servants saw when to end counting as a "policy decision that political leadership should make."

But the methodologies and procedures for filling in data gaps, reviewing the counts for errors and protecting the confidentiality of people's information should strictly stay in the lane of civil servants at "an independent statistical agency," the email says.

Trump officials — including Wilbur Ross, who served as commerce secretary — however, "expressed interest" in many technical areas, including exactly how the bureau could produce a state-by-state count of unauthorized immigrants and citizenship data that could have politically benefited Republicans when voting districts are redrawn.

The email suggests that the bureau's civil servants were planning to discuss their concerns with Ross through the end of 2020.

The bureau's public information office did not immediately respond to NPR's questions about whether those discussions took place.

The Census Bureau's civil servants tried to be transparent

Other internal government documents the Brennan Center released Saturday show that bureau officials were wary of carrying out Trump's July 2020 presidential memorandum.

Before President Biden reversed the directive last year, it called for information that would allow the president to leave out the numbers of immigrants living in the U.S. without authorization from the congressional apportionment count.

According to an August 2020 email by Jarmin — the bureau's highest-ranking civil servant — the agency had received, months before the memorandum, "asks" for information related to a federal lawsuit focused on the same topic. Like Trump, the challengers in the lawsuit — the state of Alabama and Republican Rep. Mo Brooks — wanted undocumented immigrants excluded from the numbers used to reallocate House seats and electoral votes.

The bureau, however, was "consistently pessimistic" on the feasibility of "removing undocs from the apportionment count," Jarmin warned in the email to two Trump appointees — then-Director Steven Dillingham, who ultimately resigned following whistleblower complaints, and Nathaniel Cogley, who served in the newly created, controversial role of deputy director for policy.

Still, civil servants attempted to be transparent about how they tried to create the data ordered by the former administration.

"We recommend that we do a federal register notice on the methodology because transparency requires that the American public understand how we derived the counts of unauthorized immigrants and have the opportunity to comment on that methodology," said a slide titled "Communication Strategy Decision" for an August 2020 briefing.

No such notice appeared in the federal government's official journal of record.

There are concerns of future interference with the census

In response to the newly disclosed documents, Arturo Vargas — a longtime census advocate and CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund — said in a statement that the efforts of the bureau's career professionals to resist Trump officials' pressure and "protect the integrity of census operations were nothing short of heroic."

On Tuesday, the Biden administration's Scientific Integrity Task Force, which includes Jarmin, issued a report warning that the bureau and other federal statistical agencies "must protect against interference in their efforts to create and release data that provide a set of common facts to inform policymakers, researchers, and the public."

The report presented the Trump administration's decision to end 2020 census counting early as a case study, noting that the bureau's internal watchdog, the Commerce Department inspector general's office, concluded that the rushed schedule put the quality of the results at risk.

"To date," the report added, "no individuals have been held accountable for these allegations."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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