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

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee who wore a "2020 Census" mask while swearing in to testify before a congressional hearing last year, is set to leave on Jan. 20, months before his term ends on Dec. 31.
Andrew Harnik
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee who wore a "2020 Census" mask while swearing in to testify before a congressional hearing last year, is set to leave on Jan. 20, months before his term ends on Dec. 31.

Updated at 3:40 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.

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. "He has failed to be open and transparent with Congress, and recent events indicate he has lost the confidence of Census Bureau staff."

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

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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