WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump insisted Wednesday that he is not dropping efforts to include a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 census, even as the U.S. Census Bureau has started the process of printing the questionnaire without it.
"News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!" Trump said in a tweet. "We are absolutely moving forward."
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about what he meant, but the confusion sown by Trump's tweet prompted federal judges handling census cases in Maryland and New York to ask the Justice Department for clarification.
Trump's tweet directly contradicted comments made less than 24 hours earlier by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Justice Department lawyers that they were standing down, following a Supreme Court decision halting the question.
"The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question," Ross said in a statement Tuesday. "My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate census."
Justice Department lawyers also notified parties in lawsuits challenging the question, and at least one federal judge who blocked its inclusion, that the company with a $114 million contract to print census questionnaires had been instructed to start printing forms without the citizenship question.
In the short term, Trump's comment is unlikely to affect work on the census.
But the two federal judges asked for immediate updates on the administration's intentions. U.S. District Judge George Hazel in Maryland moved up to Friday from Monday a deadline for the government to stipulate that it is no longer seeking to put the question on the 2020 census, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a plaintiff in the Maryland case, said in a tweet.
"To be clear, the government has confirmed the Census Bureau is continuing the process of printing the questionnaire without the citizenship question," the group tweeted following a conference call with the judge and lawyers on both sides that Hazel did not open to media coverage.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in New York ordered the Justice Department to report its "position and intentions" by early Thursday evening. Furman acted after New York Attorney General Letitia James asked for Furman's help in resolving the administration's conflicting accounts of its census plans.
Hazel has said he is considering reopening the case after the civil rights groups who filed the Maryland lawsuit produced evidence from the computer files of a Republican redistricting consultant who died last year that they shows that discrimination against Hispanics was behind the push for the citizenship question. It's unclear whether Trump's comment would affect Hazel's decision.
Opponents of the citizenship question said it would discourage participation by immigrants and people who are in the country illegally, resulting in inaccurate figures for a count that determines the distribution of some $675 billion in federal spending and how many congressional districts each state gets.
The administration had said the question was being added to aid in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters' access to the ballot box. But in the Supreme Court's decision last week, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four more liberal members in saying the administration's current justification for the question "seems to have been contrived."
For months, the administration had argued that the courts needed to decide quickly whether the citizenship question could be added because of the deadline to starting printing materials this week.
On Twitter Tuesday night, Trump wrote that the Supreme Court ruling marked a "very sad time for America." He also said he had asked the Commerce and Justice departments "to do whatever is necessary to bring this most vital of questions, and this very important case, to a successful conclusion." He did not elaborate.
Even though the Census Bureau is relying on most respondents to answer the questionnaire by internet next year, hundreds of millions of printed postcards and letters will be sent out next March reminding residents about the census, and those who don't respond digitally will be mailed paper questionnaires.