WASHINGTON — Government emails disclosed in a federal lawsuit show that within months of taking office, the Trump administration began discussing the need to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, contradicting initial accounts of how officials made the controversial decision.
In May 2017, the emails show, President Trump’s chief strategist at the time, Steve Bannon, requested that Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross “talk to someone about the census.” A month later, Mr. Ross began demanding that the question be added, and a top aide pledged to press Justice Department officials to say they needed better citizenship data for law enforcement.
The emails, which were disclosed late Monday, cast further doubt on the administration’s initial explanation that the citizenship question was added at the request of the Justice Department, which officials said needed the data to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
That account has steadily crumbled as more evidence has been unearthed in a lawsuit by 17 states and others challenging the citizenship question.
The question is the focus of a furious battle between the administration and an array of critics who fear asking it would render the 2020 tally so inaccurate as to be unreliable. Those critics, which include civil liberties groups, local governments and business interests, say that large numbers of both legal and undocumented immigrants will refuse to fill out census forms that demand that they disclose their citizenship status.
A lower head count in areas with large numbers of immigrants could reduce Democratic representation when new state and congressional districts are drawn in 2021.
United States District Judge Jesse M. Furman, who is hearing the lawsuit filed by the 17 states, the District of Columbia and a host of cities and counties, said last month that there was strong evidence that the Commerce Department had acted in “bad faith” when it added the question to the census.
Opponents pounced on the new documents as fresh evidence of deception. The documents confirm that the decision “was made without regard to the federal government’s scientific standards or the consequences for the accuracy and quality of census data,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and leading expert on census issues who worked for the Obama transition team. “The disregard for the scientific process is truly alarming.”
Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a statement that the documents contradict Mr. Ross’s testimony before the committee on the origins of the citizenship question. “Lying to Congress is a serious offense, and Secretary Ross must be held accountable,” he said.
A Commerce Department spokesman, Kevin Manning, said in a statement that “nothing in the court-ordered supplemental production changes the sound rationale” for the question that Mr. Ross had outlined. “Executive branch officials discussing important issues prior to formulating policy is evidence of good government, and the secretary’s previous testimony before Congress is consistent with that fact.”
The new disclosures come as the Trump administration is beginning to assert greater control over the operations of the Census Bureau, which has been run on an acting basis by career staff members for more than a year.
This week, Mr. Trump nominated a little-known manager at the Peace Corps, Steven Dillingham, to be the agency’s permanent director. Mr. Dillingham, who has overseen smaller statistical agencies at the Justice and Transportation departments, served in the 1980s as an adviser to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group.
On Monday, the Census Bureau declined to reappoint the chairwoman of the agency’s scientific advisory council, a panel of academics and business experts who monitor the progress of each census and suggest improvements and changes. Barbara A. Anderson, a University of Michigan demographer, headed the committee in March when it issued a public rebuke to the bureau warning that the citizenship question was a mistake.
The 600-plus documents released on Sunday lay out a yearlong chronology of the gestation of the citizenship question, chronicling Mr. Ross’s frustration with delays, his aides’ efforts to overcome them and the seeming consternation of career Census Bureau officials tasked with carrying out his orders.
In May 2017, a month after being asked by Mr. Bannon to discuss the census, Mr. Ross appeared to fulminate in an email at the failure of career Census Bureau officials to act on his preferences. “They emphasize that they have settled with Congress on the questions to be asked,” he wrote. “I am mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months-old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?”
“We will get that in place,” Earl Comstock, the Commerce Department director 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.”
But it was not until mid-September, after some apparent miscommunication, that Commerce Department officials won a go-ahead from Danielle Cutrona, a Justice Department official who handled immigration and “building the wall” on President Trump’s transition team. “It sounds like we can do whatever you all need us to do,” she said, adding that “the AG” — Attorney General Jeff Sessions — “is eager to assist.”
A day later, Mr. Sessions and Mr. Ross held a conversation, and by mid-December, John M. Gore, the assistant attorney general of the department’s civil rights division, had sent the Census Bureau a letter requesting that it gather data on citizenship in the 2020 census.
It fell to Ron S. Jarmin, the bureau’s acting director, to help lead Mr. Ross through the process that concluded in March with the announcement that the question had been approved. Among his tasks was to round up outsider experts who could discuss the merits of the proposal with Mr. Ross.
Mr. Jarmin wrote to an official at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, with a plea for help. "Most stakeholders will speak against the proposal,” he wrote in February. “We’re looking to find someone thoughtful who can speak to the pros.”
Less than two hours later, Mr. Jarmin received a reply: “None of my colleagues at A.E.I. would speak favorably about the proposal,” it read.
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