How the Census Bureau Stood Up to Donald Trump’s Meddling
WASHINGTON — There were 10 days left in the Trump presidency. And John Abowd and Tori Velkoff had a decision to make.
Six months earlier, in July 2020, President Donald Trump had ordered the Census Bureau, where they were senior officials, to produce a count of every unauthorized immigrant in the nation, separate from the 2020 census count that was well underway. The Trump administration’s goal was to strip those immigrants from the population count used to divvy up House seats among the states.
The move promised to benefit Republicans by sapping electoral strength from Democratic-leaning areas and handing more voting power to older, white and most likely more conservative populations.
Mr. Abowd, the bureau’s chief scientist, and Ms. Velkoff, its chief demographer, were obligated by law to carry out the president’s orders. They’d assigned some of their top experts to produce an immigrant count from billions of government records. Mr. Trump had also inserted four political appointees into the bureau’s top ranks since June, in no small part to ensure that the numbers were delivered.
But despite months of work, the results, in Mr. Abowd’s and Ms. Velkoff’s view, fell far short of the bureau’s standards for accuracy. Now the agency’s director, Steven Dillingham, was demanding the tallies — accurate or not — before the president left office.
Mr. Abowd and Ms. Velkoff went to Ron Jarmin, the deputy director. The trio, who had more than 75 years of experience in the bureau among them, agreed on a response: They would reject the demand unless they could explain in a technical report why the numbers were useless. (In an interview this month, Mr. Dillingham said that he was merely asking for an assessment of the immigrant tabulations, with whatever caveats were necessary. “I said, look over that data and see if any of it is ready,” he said.)
Mr. Jarmin then sent a message to three other Census Bureau experts whom he had assigned to assist the political appointees. Stop whatever you’re doing, it said. Any future orders will come from me.
That internal struggle, which has not been previously reported, was the breaking point in a battle with the Trump administration over political interference in the census. By now, tales of Trump appointees disrupting, or outright corrupting, the work of federal agencies are familiar. But in this case, the meddling threatened not just to change the allocation of federal power, but also to skew the distribution of trillions of federal tax dollars.
It was not a revolt or some sort of deep-state resistance that thwarted that effort. Instead, a slice of the career bureaucracy that keeps the federal government running, day in and day out, stood up for what it saw as the core function of the Census Bureau — to produce the gold standard for data about the nation’s population.
“We tried to do what we thought was statistically sound and valid,” Ms. Velkoff said in an interview in June. “If we didn’t have a statistically sound and valid methodology, then we pushed back.”
The episode pitting career officials against political appointees raises an important question: Should the Census Bureau be better protected from such political interference in the future?
The White House had initially sought to identify unauthorized immigrants by adding a question about citizenship to the census form itself. Mr. Abowd had warned that doing so would harm the quality of the count. In focus groups the bureau conducted, people in various ethnic groups expressed an “unprecedented”level of concern about giving the government identifying information, according to a 2017 report on the research. Nonetheless, Wilbur Ross, the secretary of the Commerce Department, which includes the Census Bureau, ordered the agency to go ahead with the citizenship question.
But in June 2019, the Supreme Court rejected Mr. Ross’s proffered rationale — that adding the citizenship question was necessary to better enforce the Voting Rights Act — calling it “contrived.”
With that avenue closed, the administration immediately ordered the Census Bureau to gather data on unauthorized immigrants by combing through records of some 20 federal agencies.
Mr. Abowd, Ms. Velkoff and their colleagues spent the next year collecting immigrant data from the administrative records. Then in July 2020, Mr. Trump ordered the data to be used to remove unauthorized immigrants from the coming census totals that would reapportion the House for the next decade. But to segregate unauthorized immigrants from the census totals for each state, there first had to be a census.
And that was a problem. In the summer of 2020, the bureau faced the huge challenge of counting every household in the midst of a pandemic. Despite that, Mr. Ross ordered the agency to finish the count by Sept. 30 and to produce the politically crucial population figures for apportioning House seats among the states by Dec. 31. The deadlines ensured the census totals would be delivered to Mr. Trump whether or not he won the November election.
Internally, census officials were aghast. Anyone who thought the agency could meet the December deadline, the day-to-day leader of the census, Timothy Olson, wrote to Mr. Jarmin and other senior census officials, “has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation.”
But the anti-immigrant forces within Mr. Trump’s administration kept the pressure on, creating four new political jobs in the bureau’s top ranks — an unprecedented step — beginning in June 2020.
Senior bureau officials gave them offices. They also quietly ordered that the appointees be given only rounded numbers — estimates, which could not be labeled official for political or other reasons.
The first of the new political appointees was Nathaniel Cogley, a political-science professor at a state university in rural Texas who has specialized in African studies. He was soon joined by the other three, and they reported weekly to an aide to Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff.
Mr. Cogley began attacking the bureau’s effort to count a small share of known households that evade the best efforts of census takers. In these cases — 1.2 million people in 2010, but probably many more in pandemic-scarred 2020 — the bureau has long used a statistical method called imputation, looking at nearby households to make educated guesses about who lives in the places the census field operation missed.
Some of those households are occupied by right-leaning libertarians who are deeply suspicious of the government. But many are low-income families, members of minorities and unauthorized immigrants, who expand the count for urban areas and thus increase representation for traditional Democratic strongholds.
“If you leave out imputations, you leave out African Americans, Hispanics and other hard-to-count people,” Kimball Brace, a demographer and president of a consulting firm that does work on redistricting, said in an interview. Mr. Cogley called him to ask for evidence that imputation was statistically unsound. “I saw Cogley’s view as totally a way of justifying how the Republicans come out on this,” Mr. Brace said. (Mr. Cogley did not respond to calls, texts and emails asking for comment.)
Mr. Ross had the power to order the bureau to do as Mr. Cogley wished. But after listening to dueling presentations, he allowed the imputation work to continue — handing the career officials a victory on one of their most important concerns. (Mr. Ross declined to comment on the record.)
In early November, when Joe Biden won the presidential election, the 10-week clock for Mr. Trump’s time in office began to tick with new urgency. There would be no second term. Mr. Abowd, Ms. Velkoff and their colleagues raced to meet the Dec. 31 deadline. But the bureau hit a major technical snag: The pandemic had scrambled the locations of tens of millions of people, like college students and agricultural workers, who should have been counted where they studied or worked but instead lived elsewhere temporarily because of the coronavirus.
Putting them in their proper place would take time. In late November, census officials told Mr. Dillingham, the bureau’s director, that they could not meet the Dec. 31 deadline and maintain the agency’s standards for accuracy.
Mr. Cogley and other political appointees pressed for shortcuts to speed ahead, going so far as to suggest commandeering computers from other agencies to accelerate data processing, an idea the bureau dismissed as impractical. But the political appointees and the White House never answered a basic question about the numbers they most wanted: What definition of “unauthorized immigrant” should the bureau use? Did it include people contesting their deportation in court? Or children whose birthplace was unclear? Or immigrants whose green cards were being processed?
In December, the White House tried one last tack: If census experts could not reliably say who should be removed from the state-by-state apportionment totals because they were in the country illegally, then administration officials would decide for them, using whatever tabulations of immigrants the bureau provided.
This would take a hammer to the bureau’s standards for accuracy. It would also reverse past practice, in which the Census Bureau calculated the House apportionment and the White House delivered the results to Congress as a formality. In January, Mr. Dillingham told Mr. Jarmin it was the bureau’s No. 1 priority — above the census itself — to turn over figures on undocumented immigrants to the White House by Jan. 15. He acknowledged proposing cash bonuses to those who could make it happen, but said he made sure anyone working on the project “would not be pulled off the 2020 census data.”
This last-minute order, which Mr. Dillingham delivered orally rather than in writing, was the breaking point for the career officials who had carried out every other directive. “The integrity of the statistical process that the Census Bureau is ethically committed to was abrogated in serious ways,” Mr. Abowd said.
Separately and anonymously, three career officials filed whistle-blower complaintswith the Commerce Department’s inspector general. The complaints accused Mr. Dillingham of violating a cardinal rule for the federal government called Statistical Policy Directive 1. “A federal statistical agency,” it states, “must be independent from political and other undue external influence in developing, producing and disseminating statistics.” Mr. Dillingham said this month that when he heard about the complaints to the inspector general, he stopped asking for the immigrant tabulations.
On Jan. 18, Mr. Dillingham resigned. Mr. Trump left office two days later without the counts that would have downgraded the status of immigrants and most likely helped more Republicans win election.
The census has been wielded as a political weapon before. When the very first count in 1790 fell short (at 3.9 million) of George Washington’s expectations, he didn’t change the number, but he instructed Thomas Jefferson to check it. When Jefferson’s work produced an estimate above four million, he included the higher number in descriptions of the census abroad to make the new country appear stronger.
When the 1920 census counted rising population totals in American cities — thanks to an influx of Italians, Poles, Jews and others from outside Northern Europe — Congress refused to reapportion the House until 1929 so that rural areas wouldn’t lose seats.
And most notoriously, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Army used census information to round up Japanese Americans for internment. (In 2000, the bureau apologized.)
Now a group of officials at the agency are considering how the census could be better protected from political meddling and misuse. In July, a committee of career professionals put in place a new policy on data stewardship, which firms up the rules governing internal as well as external access to confidential data. A bigger idea is to move the bureau out of the Commerce Department to make it more independent, like the National Science Foundation. Congress could also mandate by statute that immigrants who reside in the country must continue to be counted, as they always have been. Lawmakers (or the president, by executive order) also could further strengthen the existing safeguards in Statistical Policy Directive 1.
In the end, the delays that frustrated the anti-immigrant ambitions of Mr. Trump’s administration may end up helping his party. The bureau’s release of redistricting numbers on Thursday was several months behind schedule. Republicans, who control more state legislatures and have shown a greater appetite for extreme gerrymandering than Democrats have, could benefit because little time remains to contest maps before the 2022 elections.
The newly released numbers will now set the stage for what are likely to be colossal battles over control of the House and State Legislatures.
For career professionals, “the highest priority now,” Mr. Abowd said, “is restoring the credibility of the 2020 census and the Census Bureau.”
Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at The Times magazine."