Trump’s Census Director Announces Resignation, Cutting Term Short By Several Months

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 24: U.S Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham testifies before the House Oversight Committee on July 24, 2019 in Washington, DC.The hearing focused on the recent push by the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, which has since been abandoned. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 24: U.S Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham testifies before the House Oversight Committee on July 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. The hearing focused on the recent push by the Trump administra... WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 24: U.S Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham testifies before the House Oversight Committee on July 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. The hearing focused on the recent push by the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, which has since been abandoned. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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January 18, 2021 1:44 p.m.

Census Director Steve Dillingham will be stepping down on Jan. 20, cutting short by nearly a year the five-year director term, which was scheduled to expire on Dec. 31.

Dillingham announced his resignation plans in an internal Census Bureau email obtained by TPM.

Dillingham’s tenure atop the bureau was plagued by myriad controversies since his confirmation in Jan. 2019. His refusal to publicly push back on the efforts by the President and his allies to politicize the 2020 census has long prompted criticism from both within and outside the bureau. In recent days, the scrutiny intensified with the revelation of his involvement in a pressure campaign to push the bureau’s experts to produce data on noncitizens and undocumented immigrants before the end of Trump’s presidency.

Several Democratic members of Congress called for his resignation after the demand for the data was disclosed last week. Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson, who revealed the gambit in a letter to Dillingham last week, is reviewing the matter.

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It’s unclear whether the inspector general’s review played a role in Dillingham’s decision to step down. Last week, Gustafson requested written answers from Dillingham about the circumstances of the data project and suggested she might seek to question Dillingham under oath as well. Dillingham has since clarified that work on the data projected has been ceased.

Dillingham, in his letter announcing his departure, noted that he had previously retired from federal service, “but returned because I felt a calling to serve once more.”

“Effective January 20, 2021, I will be retiring from my position as director of the U.S. Census Bureau,” Dillingham’s announcement, which later Monday was published on the Census Bureau’s website, said. “I have a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart for all you have done for our Nation.”

When Dillingham departs on Wednesday, the bureau’s career Deputy Director Ron Jarmin will become acting head of the agency, a Census spokesperson told TPM.

Since the beginning of Trump presidency, the administration has been dead set on using the census to produce immigrant data in an effort to shift political power away from communities of color.

Before putting forward Dillingham for the director position, the White House was reportedly considering for the role Thomas Brunell, a go-to witness for Republicans in redistricting cases and author of “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.”

When Dillingham was nominated instead, he was confirmed easily, as he had experience working in federal statistical roles that made him a more conventional pick to the lead the Census Bureau as it prepared for the decennial census.

Though the push to add a citizenship question to the census predated Dillingham’s confirmation, Dillingham struggled with questions about the administration’s reasons for wanting the question on the survey. After the Supreme Court blocked the change to the census, Dillingham also dodged questions on other apparent gambits by the administration to use the Census Bureau for its political agenda.

Under Trump’s orders, the bureau looked at using existing government records to assemble citizenship data, which Republicans hoped to use to exclude noncitizens from redistricting and tilt political representation towards whiter, more rural communities. In July 2020, Trump also announced a directive to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population counts used for congressional apportionment.

At the time, Dillingham claimed he was kept out of the loop of Trump’s plans to unveil the policy. Both the citizenship data collection project and the undocumented immigrant exclusion policy faced fierce court challenges, as did the move by the administration to rush the final stages of the census, in an apparent bid the guarantee that Trump would be in office to implement the apportionment policy. The Census Bureau had previously planned on producing the population counts in April 2021 — with a proposed four-month extension from the Dec. 31 deadline — because of the delays caused by the pandemic.

In the litigation over the move to rush the census, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh remarked on Dillingham’s absence in key communications around the decision to speed up the timeline.

The latest controversy of Dillingham’s leadership emerged after it became clear that the administration would not be able to implement the Trump apportionment policy, because routine delays in census data processing had pushed back the timeline for producing the data past Biden’s inauguration.

Dillingham was still insisting the the data on documented and undocumented immigrants be collected, and career census experts were told that producing the data by Jan. 15 was the director’s “number one priority,” according to the inspector general.

The inspector general began reviewing the matter after bureau whistleblowers raised concerns about the quality of the data being collected, with one career expert telling the inspector general that the data report they were being asked to produce was “statistically indefensible.”

Shortly after his departure was announced, Dillingham published on the bureau’s website a statement on the matter, which came in addition to the written answers he had provided the watchdog agency last week.

He said that on around Jan. 10, he received a request that the bureau “examine relevant Census administrative data,” so that existing public estimates of documented and undocumented immigrants could be “supplement[ed]”and “improve[d].”

The statement did not say who had made the request to Dillingham.

Dillingham said that before he had even received the IG letter, he had backed off the Jan. 15 deadline and he said that he would not have released data unless it met the bureau’s quality standards.

Dillingham suggested that the whistleblower concerns were based on “misunderstandings,” “misperceptions” and “heightened concerns.”

The statement did not address explicitly the other census scandals under his tenure, but he alluded to controversy around the rushed timeline.

“I hope to share with the Congress my strong suggestion that the schedule for the decennial census data collection begin a year earlier, if possible, with time to adjust for contingencies like pandemics and natural disasters, to leave more time for data processing, and to prevent trust and goodwill generated across the nation for more than a year to be permeated or diminished by politics during an overlapping election cycle while data is being finalized,” he said. “We have just seen how late changes and directives, competing and divisive political campaigns, and a divided electorate can negatively impact public trust and perceptions.”

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