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Trump's Census Director To Quit After Trying To Rush Out 'Indefensible' Report

Jan 18, 2021
Originally published on January 18, 2021 5:45 pm

Updated at 6:37 p.m. ET

The Trump-appointed director of the U.S. Census Bureau is stepping down close to a week after whistleblower complaints about his role in attempting to rush out an incomplete data report about noncitizens became public.

In an internal email announcement on Monday, Steven Dillingham said he is retiring from the bureau on Wednesday, more than 11 months before his term expires at the end of this year, according to a Census Bureau employee who spoke to NPR and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation at work.

Dillingham later confirmed his plans, which were first reported by Talking Points Memo, in a blog post on the bureau's website.

The bureau's current deputy director and chief operating officer — Ron Jarmin, a career civil servant who served as acting director before Dillingham was appointed — is set to temporarily fill the top post again after Dillingham is out at noon ET on Wednesday, the bureau's chief spokesperson Michael Cook tells NPR.

Dillingham's departure clears the entire slate of Trump appointees at the federal government's largest statistical agency as its civil servants continue to toil over 2020 census records and prepare for the release of the first results from last year's national head count, which has been delayed until March 6 at the earliest.

All other Trump officials will also have left the bureau by Wednesday, when President-elect Joe Biden is set to be sworn in, Michael Cook, the agency's chief spokesperson, confirmed to NPR last week.

News about Dillingham comes days after Justice Department attorneys confirmed to a federal judge in a court order that the Trump administration has officially given up on trying to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the first 2020 census results, halting what would have been an unprecedented change to numbers that, according to the Constitution, must include the "whole number of persons in each state."

A former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Dillingham joined the Census Bureau in 2019. Before his appointment, the Trump administration had left the agency without a permanent director for more than a year during critical preparations for the 2020 census.

In addition to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, erratic changes to the census schedule overseen by Dillingham and other Trump officials have raised concerns about the accuracy of the census numbers that are used to determine representation in Congress and the Electoral College, redraw voting districts and guide the distribution of an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal money for the next decade.

This month, while the bureau was continuing work on the latest state population counts, Dillingham attempted to pressure career employees to make a technical data report about "documented and undocumented persons" a "number one priority" to be produced by Jan. 15, according to a memo by the inspector general's office at the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau.

The data report, Dillingham explained to the bureau's internal watchdog, was part of an effort to review how far along the bureau was in meeting Trump's executive order about using government records to produce "data on the number of citizens, non-citizens, and illegal aliens" in the country.

Dillingham's push for the data in the final days of the Trump administration came to light after whistleblowers at the bureau warned that the report would be "statistically indefensible" and could be "misinterpreted, misused, or otherwise tarnish the Bureau's reputation."

In response, civil rights group leaders and key Democratic members of Congress started calling for Dillingham to immediately resign.

"Rather than ensure an accurate count, Dr. Dillingham appears to have acceded repeatedly to the Trump Administration's brazen efforts to politicize the Census," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, in a statement last week. "He has failed to be open and transparent with Congress, and recent events indicate he has lost the confidence of Census Bureau staff."

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the bureau, both welcomed news of Dillingham's departure. "Now, the agency will have a fresh start to allow President-elect Biden to restore trust in this critical office," Meng said in a tweet.

In the blog post released Monday, Dillingham suggested that the whistleblowers' concerns "appear to be misunderstandings" about how the data report would have been reviewed for accuracy before a potential release. The report, Dillingham said, would have shown state-by-state figures of noncitizens "for purposes of improving estimates." It remains unclear, however, who initiated the request for the report.

Dillingham added that he delayed plans to retire earlier after an official with the Biden transition team asked him to stay on at the bureau "during and after the transition," though he did not specify the exact timing of this request.

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While Biden has named his intended nominees to lead the Commerce Department, the Biden team has yet to announce picks for the next Census Bureau director and other political appointees at the agency.

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, is calling for the incoming Biden administration to "move quickly" in nominating a new permanent director who can provide "competent, ethical leadership committed to the scientific integrity" of the bureau.

Vargas and other census advocates are also concerned about other unresolved issues at the bureau aside from the need for new leadership.

In a letter to Biden that cites NPR's reporting, Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, suggests four priorities for "fixing the 2020 Census and preventing future politicization."

Schatz, who has been on the Senate appropriations subcommittee for the bureau, is urging the president-elect's administration to support four-month extensions to the legal reporting deadlines for census results, rescind both Trump's executive order for citizenship data and his presidential memo on excluding unauthorized immigrants from apportionment counts, and create a nonpartisan commission that would review the accuracy of the numbers for reapportioning House seats before they're delivered to Congress for certification.

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