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President Donald Trump on Thursday dropped a fight to put a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 census, but ordered federal agencies to give the Commerce Department all records requested that could detail how many citizens and non-citizens live in the United States.
Trump did not, as has he had been expected earlier in the day, order the question to be asked on the census.
Attorney General William Barr said at a press conference that the question will not be asked on the census, acknowledging that a recent Supreme Court ruling had made doing so difficult, if not impossible.
Trump defended his original plan to have the question asked.
"The Department of Commerce sensibly decided to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census as has been done many, many times throughout the history of the United States," Trump said. "Unfortunately this effort was delayed by meritless litigation."
"The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed our right to ask the citizenship question, and very strongly it was affirmed," the president said. "But the Supreme Court also ruled that we must provide further explanation that would have produced even more litigation."
The president said those delays "would have prevented us from completing the census on time."
He called the situation "deeply regrettable."
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Earlier in the day, the president had been expected at that event to announce an executive action mandating that participants in the census be asked if they are a U.S. citizen or not.
The Supreme Court in a decision last month effectively barred the Trump administration from adding such a question to the census, as it had planned to do.
Last week, administration officials said census forms would be printed without the question.
But on the heels of their comments, Trump announced on Twitter that he would not abandon the effort to add the question.
"We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question," Trump wrote.
He later told reporters, when asked if he would issue an executive order: "Were thinking about doing that."
"Its one of the ways," he added. "We have four or five ways we can do it. Its one of the ways and were thinking about doing it very seriously."
Justice Department lawyers told a federal judge last Friday that they would continue legal efforts to add the citizenship question.
But in their filing that offered no no explanation of how the Justice Department believed it can win that fight.