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FOIA Documents from Trump Administration on 2020 Census

The internal government documents were obtained from the Commerce Department and Census Bureau through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Published: January 13, 2022

In July 2020, the Bren­nan Center submit­ted requests under the federal Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act (FOIA) to ten federal agen­cies for inform­a­tion on the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s plans for calcu­lat­ing the state-popu­la­tion totals used to determ­ine the state appor­tion­ments in the U.S. House of Repres­ent­at­ives based on the results of the 2020 Census.

When the agen­cies failed to respond in a timely manner, the Bren­nan Center filed a lawsuit to compel produc­tion of the reques­ted docu­ments with assist­ance from our pro bono coun­sel, Wilmer Cutler Pick­er­ing Hale and Dorr LLP. On Octo­ber 30, 2020, the trial court gran­ted our motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion and ordered the federal govern­ment to produce most of the reques­ted docu­ments on a rolling basis by Janu­ary 11, 2021. The govern­ment produced the records on a rolling basis, with its final produc­tion made on Septem­ber 15, 2021.

What follows is a descrip­tion of the most signi­fic­ant records produced by the Commerce Depart­ment and the Census Bureau in response to our FOIA requests.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion attemp­ted to exert extreme partisan influ­ence over the Census Bureau.

Our FOIA records suggest that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion attemp­ted to exert extreme partisan influ­ence over the Census Bureau as it was conduct­ing the 2020 Census, and that career Bureau offi­cials pushed back at those attempts. An email among senior offi­cials at the Census Bureau from Septem­ber 14, 2020, discusses the Commerce Depart­ment’s “unusu­ally high degree of engage­ment in tech­nical matters, which is unpre­ced­en­ted.” The email shows that Bureau offi­cials planned to discuss the Depart­ment’s undue involve­ment in five areas that the Bureau considered to be its own, inde­pend­ent respons­ib­il­it­ies. The issues to be discussed included the Bureau’s count­ing meth­od­o­lo­gies, data processing decisions, disclos­ure avoid­ance, the produc­tion of citizen­ship data, and the meth­od­o­logy for calcu­lat­ing the undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions of each state.

Other records suggest that the Commerce Depart­ment planned to have Commerce Secret­ary Wilbur Ross make personal calls to Repub­lican state governors to urge them to provide state admin­is­trat­ive records to the Census Bureau to “enhance the frame from which citizen­ship status is determ­ined.” (The Bren­nan Center did not uncover evid­ence that Commerce planned to make similar calls to Demo­cratic governors.)

The records also show that polit­ical appointees came onto the scene late into the 2020 Census process. An email from Director of the Census Bureau Steven Dilling­ham shows that Dilling­ham intro­duced two polit­ical appointees to career offi­cials at the Bureau as late as August 2020. The email states that the two appointees are “inter­ested in” the admin­is­tra­tion’s efforts to produce citizen­ship data. Those appointees were later repor­ted to have led the admin­is­tra­tion’s efforts to produce a report on undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions in the final days of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion.

There was a complete lack of public trans­par­ency regard­ing the admin­is­tra­tion’s attempts to collect and produce citizen­ship data, partic­u­larly the prac­tical diffi­culties with produ­cing that data.

Pres­id­ent Trump issued a memo in July 2020 stat­ing that he would illeg­ally attempt to remove undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions from the appor­tion­ment count due at the end of Decem­ber 2020. Our FOIA records show that Census Bureau offi­cials tasked with carry­ing out that memo did not think it was feas­ible or stat­ist­ic­ally sound to do so. An August 6, 2020, email addressed to Bureau Director Dilling­ham and polit­ical appointee Nath­aniel Cogley states that the Bureau “has been consist­ently pess­im­istic” about the feas­ib­il­ity of determ­in­ing the undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions of the states.

Another email among career Bureau employ­ees dated August 6, 2020, states 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.”  In a brief­ing from August 2020 on poten­tial meth­od­o­lo­gies for calcu­lat­ing the undoc­u­mented popu­la­tion, moreover, the Bureau stated that it “typic­ally is trans­par­ent about meth­od­o­lo­gies used for data products” and recom­men­ded public­a­tion of 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.” No Federal Register Notice was ever published. And despite these warn­ings that the Bureau could not produce suffi­ciently accur­ate stat­ist­ics, the admin­is­tra­tion tried to produce a report on undoc­u­mented popu­la­tions in early Janu­ary 2021.

In July 2019, Pres­id­ent Trump also direc­ted the Census Bureau to produce stat­ist­ics on citizen­ship pursu­ant to Exec­ut­ive Order 13880, which sought to exclude undoc­u­mented people from redis­trict­ing. As part of that effort, the Bureau reques­ted driver’s license data from the states. The media repor­ted that four states had agreed to comply. The major­ity of states, however, were believed to have denied the request. Our FOIA records show that more states shared much more data with the Census Bureau than was previ­ously repor­ted. A Bureau Power­Point dated June 8, 2020, indic­ates that, as of that date, 27 states and one Cali­for­nia juris­dic­tion had entered into agree­ments to share Tempor­ary Assist­ance for Needy Famil­ies (TANF) records with the Bureau, 21 states to share Women, Infants, and Chil­dren (WIC) records, 29 states and one Cali­for­nia juris­dic­tion to share Supple­mental Nutri­tion Assist­ance Program (SNAP) records, and three states to share driver’s license data. The Bureau was collect­ing this data despite that, as one record dated Septem­ber 18, 2020 indic­ates, it had not yet chosen a viable meth­od­o­logy for produ­cing citizen­ship data and had determ­ined that some sources of admin­is­trat­ive records — includ­ing TANF, SNAP, and driver’s license records — provided “very limited addi­tional return” on accur­ately calcu­lat­ing citizen­ship stat­ist­ics.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s Commerce Depart­ment was in close contact with anti-immig­ra­tion groups.

Our FOIA records show Mark Krikorian, Exec­ut­ive Director of the Center for Immig­ra­tion Stud­ies, email­ing directly with Secret­ary Ross in Decem­ber 2019. The Center for Immig­ra­tion Stud­ies is an organ­iz­a­tion clas­si­fied by the South­ern Poverty Law Center as an anti-immig­rant hate group that “has a decades-long history of circu­lat­ing racist writers, while also asso­ci­at­ing with white nation­al­ists.” The email also refers to a call from Secret­ary Ross.

Commerce Depart­ment employ­ees were also enga­ging with the anti-immig­rant Herit­age Found­a­tion. An email chain shows a Commerce Depart­ment offi­cial putting polit­ical appointee Nath­aniel Cogley into direct contact with Herit­age’s Hans Von Spakovsky, an indi­vidual the Bren­nan Center has previ­ously flagged for his extens­ive back­ground promot­ing voter suppres­sion efforts.