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Trump says he is 'absolutely moving forward' with census citizenship question, contradicting his own administration

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump on Wednesday called news reports that the Commerce Department would drop its plans to ask people if they are U.S. citizens on the 2020 census "FAKE."
  • Trump's claim came a day after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the Census Bureau is in the process of printing the census questionnaire without the citizenship question.
  • But Trump, in a tweet, said, "The 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!"
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about Iran and Mexico on June 25, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Wednesday branded as "FAKE" news reports that his administration was dropping plans to ask people if they are U.S. citizens on the 2020 census — despite officials in his own administration having said a day before that the question will not be asked.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and a Justice Department lawyer had both said Tuesday that the Census Bureau is in the process of printing the census questionnaire without the citizenship question.

Their statements came five days after a Supreme Court decision that effectively blocked the question being added to the 2020 census questionnaire.

The high court ordered the case challenging the question to be reconsidered by a lower court, leaving the Commerce Department with little or no time to have the dispute settled legally before this past Monday's deadline for printing the questionnaires.

But Trump, in a tweet Wednesday, said, "The 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!"

"We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question," Trump wrote.

Trump's use of the word "quest" echoed its use by The New York Times on Tuesday in its lead paragraph of a story that said the Trump administration, "in a dramatic about-face, abandoned its quest to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census."

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to CNBC's query as to whether the census form will ask the citizenship question.

A Census Bureau spokesman referred questions about the president's tweet to the Commerce Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Late Wednesday, the Justice Department said it is still looking into adding the question to the 2020 census, adding that it may have a legal path to doing so.

On Tuesday, Ross, in a statement had said, "I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census."

"The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question. My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate census," Ross said.

In a Tuesday email to legal challengers of the citizenship question, a Department of Justice lawyer wrote, "We can confirm that the decision has been made to print the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire without a citizenship question, and that the printer has been instructed to begin the printing process."

The Trump administration's plan to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census had been controversial since it was first announced in March 2018.

In addition to that question, the Census Bureau at the time said that respondents would be asked how many people live in their residences, and those persons' ages, sexes, Hispanic origin, race, relationship and homeownership status.

Critics of the citizenship question say it would reduce the accuracy of the census, and undercount minority populations, including immigrants.

An undercount of those groups in turn could affect the allocation of billions of dollars worth of federal funds, whose distribution often is related to census data. An undercount also could affect how district seats in the House of Representatives are drawn.

In the Supreme Court decision last week which blocked the question, for now, from being added to the census, Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the Trump administration's rationale for adding the query, calling it "contrived."

The administration had argued that while the question could make the census' count less accurate, it would help the government better enforce certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Three federal courts who heard challenges to the question did not accept that argument.

Democrats had celebrated on Tuesday after the Trump administration's apparent decision to abandon the controversial question for the upcoming census became public.

"Today's decision is a welcome development for our democracy," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at the time.

"House Democrats will be vigilant to ensure a full, fair and accurate Census."

A spokesman for Pelosi did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on Trump's tweet

Other Democrats in the House blasted Trump on Twitter for the apparent about-face on the citizenship question.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York wrote, "Mr. President, your own DOJ & @SecretaryRoss both confirmed the printing process is moving forward w/out the #CitizenshipQuestion."

"We'll never give up in fighting to prevent this illegal, immoral and purely partisan question from corrupting the census, no matter what you do," Maloney wrote.

Shortly after Trump's tweet Wednesday morning, the chairman of the House Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., announced that Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham will testify before that panel on July 24.

"It is time for the Census Bureau to move beyond all the outside political agendas and distractions and devote its full attention to preparing for the 2020 Census," Raskin said in a press release.

"This hearing will examine the current status of the Bureau's readiness for the Census next year — especially in areas where the Bureau may be falling behind such as IT, security and public education."

It was unclear if the timing of Raskin's announcement was related to the president's tweet.

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Wilbur Ross: We're cooperating with the census probe 'in a rational way'