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Analysis

Documents Reveal Trump Administration’s ‘Unprecedented’ Attempts to Influence 2020 Census

The records show the importance of adding safeguards against political interference in the census, which determines representation and funding.

January 25, 2022
Former President Trump looks at the camera, with an American flag in the background
The Washington Post/Getty

Records obtained by the Bren­nan Center in a lawsuit filed under the federal Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act reveal that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion made multiple attempts to inter­fere with the 2020 Census, push­ing further than previ­ously known but meet­ing stiff resist­ance from career Census Bureau offi­cials on many fronts.

At stake was the accur­acy and legit­im­acy of the popu­la­tion counts used to divvy up seats in the House of Repres­ent­at­ives, draw elect­oral districts, and distrib­ute $1.5 tril­lion annu­ally in federal fund­ing. The 2020 Census ulti­mately escaped disaster, but these docu­ments emphas­ize just how vulner­able the count is in the wrong hands. 

The FOIA records are the result of victory in a one-and-a-half-year legal fight that led to a court order requir­ing the federal govern­ment to produce a substan­tial number of docu­ments, the last of which were produced in Septem­ber 2021.

One crucial email chain shows that senior offi­cials at the Census Bureau were concerned about the Commerce Depart­ment’s “unpre­ced­en­ted” and “unusu­ally, high degree of engage­ment” in the 2020 Census. The chain shows that the offi­cials planned to discuss the depart­ment’s undue involve­ment in five areas the bureau considers its own, inde­pend­ent respons­ib­il­it­ies, includ­ing count­ing meth­od­o­lo­gies. Dated Septem­ber 14, 2020, the chain was created during the time the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was trying to speed up the bureau’s count­ing oper­a­tions so that Pres­id­ent Trump could attempt to illeg­ally remove undoc­u­mented persons from the appor­tion­ment data.

Excerpt from Census Bureau email U.S Depart­ment of Commerce/Bren­nan Center FOIA lawsuit

The FOIA records also show that the Census Bureau offi­cials tasked with carry­ing out the admin­is­tra­tion’s direct­ive to calcu­late undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions did not think doing so was feas­ible or stat­ist­ic­ally sound — and they stated so repeatedly, only to be over­rid­den by polit­ical appointees.

An August 2020 email addressed to Census Bureau Director Steven Dilling­ham and a late-in-the-game bureau polit­ical appointee, Nath­aniel Cogley, warns that the bureau “has been consist­ently pess­im­istic” about the feas­ib­il­ity of determ­in­ing the undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions of the states. Another email from the same day cautions that “under the best, most legally defens­ible meth­od­o­logy, we are at great risk of not being able to carry out the policy outlined in the Pres­id­en­tial Memor­andum by Decem­ber 31, 2020.” Despite these warn­ings, Trump appointees at the bureau nonethe­less pushed for faulty stat­ist­ics, with Dilling­ham reportedly order­ing bureau staff to hast­ily produce a report on undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions in early Janu­ary 2021.

Other records suggest that more states shared much more data to aid the Census Bureau’s efforts to collect citizen­ship data than was previ­ously repor­ted. A bureau Power­Point from June 2020 indic­ates that a major­ity of the states had entered into agree­ments with the bureau to share admin­is­trat­ive records about resid­ents enrolled in public assist­ance programs. The bureau was collect­ing this data despite the fact that, as one record indic­ates, it had not yet chosen a viable meth­od­o­logy for produ­cing citizen­ship data and had determ­ined that the same sources of admin­is­trat­ive records they were collect­ing from the states provided “very limited addi­tional return” on accur­ately calcu­lat­ing citizen­ship stat­ist­ics.

Screenshot of Census Bureau PowerPoint tracking agreements for information sharing with states U.S Depart­ment of Commerce/Bren­nan Center FOIA lawsuit

These FOIA results show just how fragile the census process is. It took timely litig­a­tion, advocacy, and career Census Bureau offi­cials push­ing back at polit­ical inter­fer­ence to ensure that the 2020 Census did not fail. While 2020 appor­tion­ment data fell within the predicted ranges, and redis­trict­ing advoc­ates were able to move forward with the data they received to push for fairer maps, there may still well be under­counts, espe­cially racially differ­en­tial under­counts.

We will be watch­ing the upcom­ing results of the bureau’s Post-Enumer­a­tion Survey to assess the qual­ity of the final count. In the mean­time, it’s time to start think­ing about what guard­rails should be put in place to protect future censuses from reach­ing the brink of disaster.

For a full break­down of the records obtained through the Bren­nan Center’s 2020 Census FOIA requests, click here.