President Donald Trump with Attorney General William Barr, center, and...

President Donald Trump with Attorney General William Barr, center, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday dropped his legal battle to force a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, and instead issued an executive order to use federal databases “to gain a full, complete and accurate count of the noncitizen population.”

Stymied by lawsuits and a Supreme Court ruling that found the government had offered a “contrived” justification for adding the question to the census, Trump said in a Rose Garden news conference he accepted that it’s too late to carry on the legal battle.

As an alternative, Trump said he is ordering every department and agency in the federal government — singling out the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration — to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records on citizenship.

“The Census Bureau projected that using previously available records, it could determine citizenship for 90 percent of our population or more,” he said. “With today’s executive order, which eliminates long standing obstacles to data sharing, we’re aiming to count everyone.”

Democrats and immigrant advocates had warned that including the citizenship question would discourage participation in the census — resulting in undercounts of millions of people, especially among noncitizens or families with members who are not U.S. citizens.

Trump persisted in battling for the addition of the question as he continued to campaign on the issue that helped him win the election in 2016 and that he sees as a key issue in his campaign for re-election — immigration and a crackdown on those illegally in the country.

The U.S. Census last asked about citizenship on questionnaires widely distributed for the count in 1950, though it has asked a sample of the population in annual surveys to allow it to project an estimate of citizens and noncitizens.

Trump justified his insistence on the question being asked of everyone by saying that federal policy on “health care, education, civil rights, or immigration” should be based on an accurate count of “citizens, noncitizens and illegal aliens.”

Democrats suspect that Trump wanted to include the citizenship question to intimidate Latinos from answering the census so that it undercounts those communities, and Republicans can redraw congressional districts to their advantage.

Trump did say Thursday he wanted citizenship information for redistricting purposes.

“This information is also relevant to administering our elections. Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter eligible population,” Trump said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement, “The president’s retreat on adding the misguided citizen question to the census was long overdue and is a significant victory for democracy and fair representation.”

Attorney General William Barr said the Supreme Court ruling did not forbid the Census Bureau from adding the question. Instead, Barr said, the court stated that Commerce Department attorneys did not provide an adequate explanation for including the question.

“Put simply, the impediment was a logistical impediment, not a legal one,” Barr said during the Rose Garden news conference. “We simply cannot complete the litigation in time to carry out the census.”

Trump faced extended litigation if he went ahead with a plan to require that the Census include the question on the forms sent to all Americans.

When the White House announced Thursday morning that Trump would speak about the issue, Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, issued a statement threatening to go back to court.

Trump denied he was backing down, but he clearly was unhappy the Census questionnaires would not include a question asking if the respondent is a citizen of the United states, saying, “Oh, gee, I can’t answer that question.”

He added, “There used to be a time when you could proudly declare I am a citizen of the United States. Now, they’re trying to erase the very existence of a very important word in a very important thing — citizenship.”

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