Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Fact check: No, President Obama did not remove a citizenship question from the census while he was in office.
President Donald Trump declared a retreat in his administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census. In a Rose Garden press conference on Thursday, the president said that the government would use existing federal data to capture the citizenship status of the nation, reiterating a plan launched by the Commerce Department last year.
Just a week ago, Trump had insisted that the government would push forward in its efforts to add the controversial question to the census, despite a decision by the Supreme Court in late June blocking the maneuver. But while he abandoned this campaign on Thursday, he did not concede defeat.
Trump’s die-hard supporters aren’t backing down, either. A new conspiracy theory about the census has even taken root among the president’s supporters, who have convinced themselves that Trump’s predecessor and chief ideological foe is somehow to blame. This new, false theory suggests that President Barack Obama removed a citizenship question from the census—a conspiracy that would paint Trump as the conservator of liberal democracy.
Rush Limbaugh, a talk-radio titan and Trumpland conspiracy prognosticator, broke the conspiracy in the mainstream media during a live segment on Fox & Friends on Thursday. “Why did that question get taken off? That’s where everybody’s focus should have been,” he said. Limbaugh added, “Obama takes the question off, the Republicans do what? [Imitates snoring sound] Say nothing.”
Ainsley Earhardt, the Fox & Friends cohost, immediately cosigned on the theory, saying that a citizenship question had been on the census from 1870 to 2010 and that Obama removed it. Both claims are false.
“It’s like the censorship [sic] question,” reads the transcript of a Limbaugh program posted on Thursday. “The real controversy is who the hell removed it? Well, we have the answer to that. Barack Hussein Obama.”
The claim has no basis in fact. Obama never removed any question from the census, and a citizenship question hasn’t appeared on the short-form census questionnaire in nearly 70 years. The question was a feature of the long-form census, a sample form that went out to 1 in 6 households in 2000; that survey was replaced in 2005 by the American Community Survey, which still includes a citizenship question today. None of these changes involves the primary census enumeration, and none of them involves Obama.
But the facts haven’t stopped fever-swamp denizens from insisting that Obama personally stripped a citizenship question from the census. Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, posted the conspiracy in a July 5 tweet that has been retweeted more than 21,000 times.
In fact, many Republicans considered the American Community Survey to be overly intrusive when it was first introduced. GOP lawmakers introduced legislation to make responding to the sample survey optional instead of compulsory. Former Texas Representative Ted Poe backed such a bill as recently as 2017. In its own confused way, this conspiracy would seem to mark an about-face in conservative opinion on the ACS.
With the 2020 Census now off to the printers without any citizenship question, this last-gasp effort from right-wing echo chambers to build an alt-reality rationale for the question is unlikely to have any bearing on next year’s decennial count. But the hundreds or thousands of social-media posts repeating the false claim about Obama and the census illustrate an urgent crisis in the state of tribal partisanship in America: Not even simple, straightforward, unimpeachable claims about reality can escape relitigation from people who feel no loyalty to facts.