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.