President Trump announced Thursday that he is backing down from efforts to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census, ordering the government instead to obtain citizenship data through existing federal records.

In a late afternoon announcement at the White House, Trump said he was issuing an executive order instructing federal agencies –including Homeland Security– to provide the Census Bureau with citizenship data from their databases.

“I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens in our country,” Trump said. “They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately.”

The New York Times reported that Trump came close to admitting, for the first time, that his push for the citizenship question was to eliminate noncitizens from the population bases used to draw political boundaries and not to defend the Voting Rights Act, as his administration had argued in a number of court cases.

“This information is also relevant to administering our elections,” Trump said. “Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts, based upon the voter eligible population.”

Thursday’s announcement appeared to put an end to a long legal battle over the citizenship question. Over the past weekend, the Justice Department announced a major shakeup in its team of lawyers representing the Trump administration, less than 48 hours after the president said he would consider issuing an executive order to do so.

“The Department of Justice is shifting these matters to a new team of Civil Division lawyers going forward,” read a written statement by a DOJ spokesperson on Sunday. NPR reported that the new legal team includes lawyers from the Consumer Protection Branch who do not usually deal with the Census.

The DOJ gave no further explanation for the change, which followed a week in which Justice and Trump offered conflicting statements about the addition of the question – “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” – on forms for the upcoming national head count.

According to the New York Times, the decision appeared to indicate that the department’s career lawyers had decided to quit a case that lacked legal basis and left them defending statements that could turn out to be untrue. Lawyers defending the administration had told the Supreme Court that the government faced a June 30 deadline for printing the census forms.

Last month, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s reason for adding the question, saying that the rationale used –defending the 1965 Voting Rights Act– was made up. Agreeing with three lower courts, the Supreme Court said the reason to add the question appeared to be political, but left open the possibility that the Trump administration could offer a credible rationale.

Last week, it appeared as the battle over the question was winding down. On Tuesday, lawyers for the DOJ and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told federal judges the government was proceeding with the census without the citizenship question. On Wednesday they were contradicted by Trump, who said on Twitter that those statements were “fake.” The president suggested the head count could be delayed until he found a way of adding a citizenship question, perhaps by printing an addendum to be tacked onto the questionnaire.

Last Friday, Trump said he was considering an executive order to add the question.

In a statement released Thursday, the Justice Department said it would “promptly inform the courts” that the government would not seek to include a citizenship question on the census.

Census experts said that millions of U.S. households with immigrants would have refused to fill out the form if the citizenship question was included. That would have led to a severe undercount in California and other states with a high percentage of immigrants.

Photo above from Creative Commons/Flicker user: “Project 365 #86: 270311 On Good Form” by comedy_nose is licensed under CC PDM 1.0 

Editors note: This post was updated with new details on July 12.

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