President Donald Trump on Thursday announced he had backed away from issuing an executive order to add a citizenship question to the census form and would instead instruct all government agencies to provide existing data about residents’ citizenship status.
In a White House announcement, Trump said he’d nixed the census question because it would have prompted “considerable delays” in completing the census.
Several former Census Bureau directors and other experts told NBC News that while Trump could have potentially moved forward in three ways to include the question on the census form — each would have presented enormous and unprecedented logistical challenges, due mostly to the fact the Commerce Department had already begun printing forms without the question.
1. Start over
Following a Supreme Court decision that blocked the addition of the question, the Census Bureau recently began printing the questionnaire.
That means that if Trump had decided to nevertheless order the question added, one option would have been to throw away everything that’s already been printed and reprint the questionnaire with the citizenship question.
But depending on how many forms had already been printed, the former census chiefs and experts said, this option could have been enormously expensive.
“This is not just like going to your corner print store and running off a few extra copies. This is a print job unlike any print job the country ever does,” Robert Groves, the Census Bureau director from 2009 to 2012, told NBC News.
Groves, who oversaw the 2010 census during the Obama administration, said the government contract and the timing with the printer — the conglomerate R.R. Donnelley — is typically arranged far in advance and can be very difficult to change on short notice.
“In order to schedule such a large print job, the company that does it has to move their other clients around the census schedule, and I would imagine they have already done so,” Groves, who now works as the provost of Georgetown University, said. “If the government came in at the last minute, and said we need more print capacity in the later phase, you can imagine the logistical problems and implications for other printer users.”
Groves estimated the government would have had to reprint tens of millions of new questionnaires.
2. An addendum
Another option would have been to print an addendum — essentially one additional piece of paper with the added question on it to supplement the census questionnaire that had already been printed.
While this option would have been far less costly and quicker, the former Census Bureau directors agreed that having two questionnaires would likely present substantial confusion for recipients and lead to unreliable results.
“You can obviously just print a separate piece of paper and stick it in a separate envelope, but that would damage the census, by definition,” said Kenneth Prewitt, who served as the Census Bureau director from 1998 to early 2001 and oversaw the 2000 census in the Clinton administration.
“It’s unprecedented and, yes, methodologically unsound,” added Prewitt, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He explained that, in this scenario, participants might receive one envelope in the mail with two questionnaires, or two envelopes with two questionnaires, and that in either case, it would likely cause confusion and lead to people filling out one but not the other — which could scramble results.
“Changes midstream, like this, are likely to impact accuracy and the quality of the data,” said Corinna Turbes, the associate director of policy analysis at the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, a nonprofit focused on promoting excellence in federal statistics.
Experts also pointed out that if Census Bureau officials started over and reprinted the questionnaire, or included an addendum, the bureau also would have to print other materials — such as instructions for “enumerators,” the census takers who go house to house.
“The citizenship question is a politically and emotionally charged question,” Groves said. “You’d have to print new training manuals for enumerators. Imagine yourself as an enumerator working in a neighborhood that has a lot of new immigrants … you would need to pick up some skills to express to them this is confidential information that can’t be used against them. This is a new challenge.”
3. Call them
After the initial self-response period, the Census Bureau begins a non-response follow-up phase for people who did not respond initially. In between, however, there is something called the “coverage improvement operations” — a large-scale effort by callers hired by the Census Bureau who reach out to respondents from the initial wave of voluntary responses for answers to questions that were not clear or were missing.
In theory, Groves and Prewitt said, the Census Bureau could use this protocol as a way to ask all respondents the citizenship question.
But the callers would have to receive fresh training on how to appropriately ask the question, Groves said. In addition, he said, coverage improvement operations have typically been staffed at levels that imagine callers reaching out a few million households with incomplete data — not tens of millions of them.
“The staffing of the call centers is not designed to be at this level,” Groves said.
There are other unique problems in this scenario.
“Even in 2019, not everyone has a telephone,” Groves said. “And actually, not everyone even writes their telephone number on the form in the first place. It’s an item where we tend to see the most missing data.”
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Sondland says all the president’s men focused on Biden probe
Gordon Sondland flipped on President Donald Trump — and all the president’s men.
“We followed the president’s orders,” Sondland told lawmakers Wednesday at the House impeachment inquiry hearing.
The U.S. ambassador to the European Union described in detail how Trump and several of his top lieutenants — including personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — were all “in the loop” on a policy that increasingly focused on securing the announcement of investigations affecting American politics.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland said. “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president.”
The announcement of such probes would have benefited Trump politically by casting aspersions on one of the president’s leading rivals — former Vice President Joe Biden — and on the intelligence community’s finding that Russia intervened on his behalf during the 2016 election.
Under intense questioning from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., Sondland conceded that a Biden investigation would help Trump — though he said he didn’t originally understand the effort to be aimed at the former vice president — and that the request for it would put Ukraine in a terrible position.
Sondland testified that administration officials collectively used the lure of a White House meeting, and possibly the release of $391 million in aid, to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce the investigations.
Sondland also said the group’s demands were on a “continuum of insidiousness” that grew worse over a period of months, and that there was a “quid pro quo” relationship between the meeting and the proposed probes.
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Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are pushing to gather enough evidence to justify an article of impeachment involving bribery, and they believe Sondland’s testimony moved them further in that direction.
But even short of that, he provided a mountain of fresh details about the breadth and depth of the administration’s focus on using the powers of the executive branch for what Democrats say are partisan political purposes — justification, perhaps, for articles based on “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Several of those named, including Pence, Pompeo, Mulvaney and Perry — none of whom have testified — quickly denied elements of Sondland’s story personally, or through aides.
As for the military aid, Sondland said he had come to the conclusion that the president had frozen $391 million in taxpayer dollars as leverage to win those political probes before speaking to Trump in early September. His decision to tell an aide to Zelenskiy that funds would not be unfrozen until a public announcement of the investigations was made was “based on my communications with Secretary Pompeo,” he said.
What he carefully declined to do was either condemn or exonerate Trump on the question of whether the president was actually using federal money to extort Ukraine. If someone accuses Trump of extortion or soliciting a bribe, it won’t be him.
In a moment Republicans were quick to point to in the president’s defense, Sondland testified that “President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the investigations.”
He also testified that Trump told him “no quid pro quo” when Sondland called in early September to ask what was needed to free up the money.
“I want nothing,” a cranky Trump said, Sondland testified. “I want nothing. No quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy to do the right thing.”
Republican staff lawyer Steve Castor noted that Sondland hadn’t mentioned in an opening statement the fact that Trump had not connected the aid to investigations in direct conversations.
“This is an exculpatory fact shedding light on the president’s state of mind,” Castor said.
But at the time, the White House was already aware that a whistleblower complaint involving a possible exchange of foreign aid for political investigations was making its way through the intelligence community’s inspector general process and the Justice Department.
At one point in October, Mulvaney said that the money was conditioned on an investigation into possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election — based on what U.S. officials have called a conspiracy theory — but he later walked that back and said his remarks had been misconstrued.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said before reversing course.
Sondland said in his opening statement that he watched as the White House piled on more demands of the Ukrainians over the summer, and he agreed with Democratic lawyer Daniel Goldman’s formulation that he made a “two plus two equals four” calculation to arrive at the conclusion that the money wouldn’t flow without the announcement of investigations.
If you can’t get a meeting without the statement, he said, “what makes you think you’re going to get a $400 million check?”
In the end, Sondland threaded a careful needle. He pulled up short of accusing his boss of bribery.
But he also implicated the president and several of his closest advisers in putting Trump’s political interests ahead of his country’s. And he said “quid pro quo.”
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