Then-Trump political adviser Stephen K. Bannon was instrumental in pushing the Census Bureau to ask about citizenship on the full 2020 count, the government admitted in court papers Thursday, further complicating the administration’s defense of the question.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross now says it was Mr. Bannon who called him in spring 2017 to ask him to talk to Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state and a major figure in conservatives’ push for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, about adding a citizenship question to the next decennial count.
The revelation was made in a brief made public by the New York Immigration Coalition, which has sued to try to block the citizenship question.
Opponents said the revelation of Mr. Bannon’s involvement is more evidence the question was added not for legitimate government purposes, but rather to further political aims of President Trump.
“It’s obvious that the administration hates immigrants and wants to deny big, blue states federal resources and political power by undercounting them in the census,” said Steven Choi, the coalition’s executive director. “This is a perversion of the Constitution for partisan gain and a direct attack on anyone who doesn’t meet Steve Bannon’s warped approval.”
Mr. Bannon was Mr. Trump’s political strategist in the White House when he connected Mr. Kobach and Mr. Ross. He was ousted in summer 2017.
Emails produced in the case had previously hinted at the Bannon contact, but Thursday’s court filing was a government confirmation. The Commerce Department downplayed the revelation: “Today’s response supplements the record but does not change the Secretary’s story, it only adds to it.”
It turns out the chain of communications is important to the citizenship question’s chances of surviving legal scrutiny.
A federal judge has ruled that the citizenship question isn’t inherently illegal, but said questions surrounding the circumstances under which it was added could make its inclusion illegal. The judge has allowed the coalition’s lawsuit against the census, as well as one filed by the state of New York, to proceed.
The judge has also ordered Mr. Ross and another top government official sit for depositions to explain their roles in the decision-making.
Justice Department lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to cancel those depositions, and a decision is now in the hands of the justices.
Mr. Ross’ decision-making has been highly controversial.
An aide had previously said in court documents that Mr. Ross couldn’t confirm that he’d spoken to Mr. Bannon regarding the citizenship question.
Mr. Ross had originally said he added the question after a request from the Justice Department, which in a December 2017 letter said having citizenship information would make it easier to suss out voting-rights violations.
But the new revelations show top political officials were pushing the matter well before that Justice Department request.
The full decennial census asked about citizenship up through 1950, but the question was deleted from the main survey and relegated to a subset of surveys, where it remains as of now.