Trump Admin Engaged in “Unprecedented” Actions Over 2020 Census, Documents Show

The Brennan Center has records pertaining to a lawsuitThe federal Freedom of Information Act documents reveal that the Trump administration tried to interfere with the 2020 Census in multiple ways. They went further than anyone knew, but were met with stiff resistance by career Census Bureau officials on many fronts.

It was the legitimacy and accuracy of the population counts used for dividing up seats in Congress, drawing electoral districts, and distributing $1.5 trillion annually in federal funds that was at stake. Although the 2020 Census did not end in disaster, these documents show how vulnerable the count is to error.

The FOIA recordsThese documents were the result of a nearly two-year-long legal battle that culminated in a court order requiring the federal Government to produce a substantial amount of documents. The last one was 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. The chain was created on September 14, 2020. It was created at the time when the Trump administration was in power. trying to speed up the bureau’s counting operations so that President Trump could attempt to illegally remove undocumented persons from the apportionment data.

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 staffIt was necessary to quickly produce a report about undocumented populations in 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 It was evident that the majority of states had reached agreements with the bureau in June 2020 to share administrative records regarding residents enrolled under public assistance programs. Despite the fact that this data was being collected by the bureau, 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.


These FOIA results demonstrate how fragile the census process. It took timely litigation and advocacy as well as career Census Bureau officials fighting back against political interference to ensure the 2020 Census didn’t fail. While 2020 apportionment data fell within the predicted rangesWhile redistricting advocates were able move forward with the data that they received to push for fairer mapping, there may still be undercounts, particularly racially diverse undercounts.

We will be watching the upcoming results of the bureau’s Post-Enumeration SurveyTo assess the quality of the final number. 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.