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Trump administration's citizenship census question is an unconstitutional mess. But who's to blame?

House Democrats are trying to get to the bottom of a scandal that could be just as consequential as the Mueller report.
Image: Wilbur Ross
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has some explaining to do.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

In 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that for the first time in 70 years, a question would appear on the 2020 census asking about citizenship status. Make no mistake about it, this is one of the most consequential actions taken by President Donald Trump’s administration. It may not be as sexy as an FBI investigation into foreign interference in our election, but this change to the census could have much larger long-term consequences than most of the scandals currently engulfing the White House.

It is also a decision that has come under unprecedented legal scrutiny, with two judges ruling to block the addition of the citizenship question. In the most recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg found that Ross had acted in “bad faith,” broke the law and violated the Constitution.

At a time when Trump and his Republican enablers are leading a crusade against immigrants and minorities, the decision to add a citizenship question to the census was viewed by many experts as a deliberate effort to manipulate the count and effectively undercount the immigrant and minority populations in America.

The decision to add a citizenship question was viewed by many experts as a deliberate effort to undercount the immigrant and minority populations in America.

It seems like it can't be a coincidence that just two weeks prior to Ross’ announcement, the Census Bureau released new statistics projecting that by 2045, white people in America would fall to 49.7 percent of the American population — making them the minority.


As demographics continue to remake American into a more diverse population, some desperate Republicans seem to hope they can to cling to power by tampering with the system. The census is a constitutionally-mandated count that happens every 10 years. From that count — as directed by the Constitution — representation in government is apportioned. It’s not rocket science. If you undercount minorities and immigrants, you are depressing their representation in government.

Ross’ decision warrants suspicion when you factor in the repeatedly inaccurate statements he has told Congress about the origins of the citizenship question. These past statements will certainly be interrogated during Thursday’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.

Appearing before the House Appropriations Committee on March 20, 2018, Ross testified that “we have had a request, as everyone is aware, from the Department of Justice, to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.” He was specifically asked if “the president or anyone in the White House discussed with you or anyone one your team about adding the citizenship question?” Ross responded, “I am not aware of any such [discussion].”

Two days later, appearing in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, he repeated the claim that the Justice Department “initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.” And two months later, at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Ross again directly stated that “the Justice Department is the one who made the request of us.”

On multiple occasions, at multiple congressional hearings, Ross testified that the decision to add the citizenship question to the census came from a Justice Department request.

He was lying.

Last October, documents related to a court case challenging the legality of adding the question directly contradicted Ross’ congressional testimony, forcing the Commerce Department to file updated disclosures with the courts.

Internal documents made public revealed that on March 10, 2017, Ross received an email from the Commerce Department’s chief financial officer and assistant secretary for administration regarding “your question on the Census,” which included a Wall Street Journal article with the headline, “The Pitfalls of Counting Illegal Immigrants.”

On April 5, 2017, Ross’ executive assistant sent an email to his wife asking about his plans for that evening because White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had “asked that the Secretary talk to someone about the Census.”

On May 2, 2017, Ross complained in an email to his staff, “I am mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question.” Earl Comstock, the director of the Commerce Department’s office of policy and strategic planning responded: “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question, and we have the court cases to illustrate that DOJ has legitimate need for the question to be included. I will arrange a meeting with DOJ staff this week.”

The last time there was any hint of White House interference in the census process, House oversight Republicans went into full attack mode.

So, as it turns out, the Justice Department was asked by the Commerce Department to request the question, with the full knowledge of the commerce secretary.

When Ross testified to Congress that the citizenship question originated with DOJ, he was lying. The question originated with the White House and Steve Bannon. On July 21, 2017, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach sent an email to Ross’ chief of staff revealing he had spoken to Ross “at the direction of Steve Bannon” and that the citizenship issue was “pretty straightforward,” as Bannon had provided “the text of the question to be added.”

The last time there was any hint of White House interference in the census process, House oversight Republicans, led by my boss at the time Darrell Issa, went into full attack mode, lambasting the effort as a “shamefully transparent attempt by your Administration to politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census.” So incensed were Republicans that they even introduced a resolution calling on the commerce secretary to “use all legal and reasonable means to count every living person” in the 2010 census.

By the way, that resolution made no mention of citizenship or legal status. Remember this history as Republicans leap to Ross’ defense.

For more than a year, Democrats have been trying to get Wilbur Ross in front of the House Oversight Committee. Republicans resisted. They rejected numerous calls for hearings and subpoenas. But they won’t be able to protect him from accountability anymore.