Jurisprudence

Top Trump Census Official Communicated With GOP Operative About Citizenship Question

President Donald Trump speaks about healthcare coverage at the White House on June 14, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump speaks about healthcare coverage at the White House on Friday in Washington, D.C.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On May 30, the plaintiffs challenging the Trump administration’s census citizenship question dropped a bombshell: A central portion of the Justice Department’s rationale for the question was apparently written by Thomas Hofeller, the GOP’s longtime gerrymandering mastermind. In a 2015 study, Hofeller wrote that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites” and “a disadvantage to the Democrats.” He also explained how Republicans could justify inserting a citizenship question by claiming, falsely, that it would aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Multiple passages in Hofeller’s study appeared verbatim in the 2017 Justice Department letter that provided a legal rationale for the question’s addition. This new evidence, the plaintiffs argued, proved that the Trump administration’s real reason for adding the citizenship question was to boost white, Republican voting power.

The Justice Department responded with indignant denial. It insisted that the plaintiffs could not link Hofeller to the Commerce Department (which oversees the Census Bureau), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, or the Census Bureau itself. Thus, the plaintiffs lacked proof that Hofeller’s study played any role in the development on the citizenship question.

On Friday night, however, voting rights advocates released new evidence connecting Hofeller directly to the Census Bureau. The evidence comes from Hofeller’s hard drives, which his daughter gave to a voting rights group after his death. It reveals that Christa Jones, current chief of staff to Census Bureau deputy director Ron Jarmin, personally communicated with Hofeller, emailing him about the citizenship question in 2015—months before Hofeller authored the study explaining how the question would benefit white voters and disadvantage non-white ones.* Jones played a key role in the creation of the citizenship question, so these emails seem to disprove the administration’s claims that Hofeller had nothing to do with the manipulation of the census.

Jones and Hofeller’s relationship goes back to at least 2010. That year, Jones—then a civil servant at the Census Bureau—sent Hofeller an email from her private Hotmail account about a Sean Hannity segment. The Fox News host had condemned the bureau for airing an ad during the Super Bowl encouraging everyone to participate in the 2010 census. Jones emailed a transcript of the segment to Hofeller, writing: “They could really hurt the census. What do you think?” The two then discussed whether the ad was a waste of money. It is unclear why Jones, who again was then a civil servant in the Census Bureau, was communicating with Hofeller about bureau affairs from her private account.

Five years later, Jones emailed Hofeller once again from her Hotmail account, alerting him that the bureau was collecting public comments on the 2020 census. “Public comments highly useful in this context,” Jones wrote. The next day, she sent a follow-up email, telling Hofeller: “This can also be an opportunity to mention citizenship as well.” Jones appears to have been advising Hofeller to file a public comment encouraging the bureau to adopt a citizenship question.

Other emails prove that Jones communicated with Hofeller and other Republican strategists throughout this period about redistricting-related matters. For instance, in 2010, Jones forwarded an email from Burton Reist, director of the 2010 census communications campaign, to Hofeller and Mark Neuman that highlighted a website debunking “misleading information” about the census. (Neuman, a friend of Hofeller’s, provided the 2017 letter that appeared to draw from the 2015 Hofeller memo to create a legal rationale for the citizenship question.) Jones and Hofeller appear to have met for dinner in 2015 with an unknown third person. And Jones was on a 2010 email thread with Hofeller and several Republican operatives—including David Avella of GOPAC, a Republican training group, and Charles Black, ex-partner of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone—discussing redistricting.

Following Donald Trump’s election, Jones was elevated to the bureau deputy director’s chief of staff. In that capacity, she helped to review and approve the citizenship question. She also searched for activists who would support the question’s inclusion—suggesting Mark Kirkorian and Steven Camarotta of the Center of Immigration Studies, a notoriously racist anti-immigrant organization.

In their Friday filing, the plaintiffs allege that Jones’ “direct private contact with Hofeller about the citizenship question refutes [the government’s] contention that no link between Hofeller and [Ross] can be shown.” Rather, it proves that a proponent of the citizenship question near the top of the Census Bureau communicated with Hofeller about adding the question.

The plaintiffs filed this evidence with the U.S. District Court of Maryland, one of three courts that had blocked the question before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over the dispute. Judge George Hazel found that the question ran afoul of the Administrative Procedure Act and the Constitution’s enumeration clause, but he did not find evidence of discriminatory animus in violation of equal protection and civil rights laws. The plaintiffs on Friday urged Hazel to reopen the case in light of these emails linking Hofeller to the Census Bureau.

On June 12, the House Oversight Committee’s Republicans tweeted that “[o]fficials involved in the decision” to add the citizenship question “never heard of Hofeller.” But the Hofeller files demonstrate that, to the contrary, a high-ranking official who endorsed the citizenship question had a close relationship with Hofeller and had even discussed the citizenship question with him. And this information comes on the heels of the revelation that Hofeller’s own words appear verbatim in a critical DOJ document that attempted to justify the question with a transparently pretextual argument.

It is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Hofeller played no role in the insertion of the citizenship question. The Supreme Court is set to rule on the question’s legality by the end of the month; it cannot ignore this mounting evidence of bad faith and deception without undermining its own legitimacy.

Correction, June 15, 2019: Due to an error on Census Bureau’s website, this piece originally misstated that Christa Jones served as chief of staff to the bureau’s director. She serves as chief of staff to Deputy Director Ron Jarmin.