WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday stepped up its effort to place a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, after the president said he was mulling an executive order to deal with the impasse and Justice Department lawyers told a federal judge they were still looking for a legal way forward.
The Supreme Court has called the administration’s rationale for the question ‘‘contrived’’ and said the government could not go forward without a solid justification. On Friday, President Trump and a key official mentioned other possible reasons for adding the citizenship question, capping a week of contradictions that could make the administration’s legal case even more difficult.
Government lawyers said in a filing Friday that the Justice and Commerce departments had been ‘‘instructed to examine whether there is a path forward’’ for the question and that if one was found they would file a motion in the Supreme Court to try to get the question on the survey to be sent to every US household.
Their filing came in a case before US District Judge George Hazel in Maryland that poses the issue of whether the addition of the citizenship question would violate equal-protection guarantees and whether it is part of a conspiracy to drive down the count of minorities. He scheduled information gathering to begin immediately and conclude by Aug. 19, with any witnesses to testify in early September.
Meanwhile, the government has begun printing the census forms without the question, and that process will continue, administration officials said.
The administration’s rationale is the crux of battles over the question, which have morphed from confrontations in four courts to a fierce partisan struggle with potentially huge implications for national and local politics alike. Population figures guide the allotment of hundreds of billions of federal dollars every year, touching virtually everyone in the nation.
More important, census totals are used to divvy up congressional seats among the 50 states, and as the base for drawing thousands of state and local political boundaries.
Critics of the citizenship question say it would lead to an undercount of immigrants, most of whom live in cities that predominantly lean Democratic. An undercount would diminish Democratic representation and benefit Republicans.
Statements Friday from Trump and his acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services director, Ken Cuccinelli, seemed to add confusion to why the government wants the addition.
The administration had said in multiple legal battles that the question was needed to get a better sense of the voting population to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Opponents countered that the question could result in a severe undercount of immigrant communities.
But speaking to reporters at the White House Friday morning, Trump said the question was needed ‘‘for many reasons.’’
‘‘Number one, you need it for Congress — you need it for Congress for districting,’’ he said. ‘‘You need it for appropriations: Where are the funds going? How many people are there? Are they citizens? Are they not citizens? You need it for many reasons.’’
Trump’s statement could give additional heft to evidence discovered in May suggesting that the administration worked with a Republican redistricting strategist who saw the question as a way to give Republicans and non-Hispanic whites an electoral advantage. Government officials had previously denied that adding the question had anything to do with the strategist or his analysis.
Appearing on Fox Business Network on Friday, Cuccinelli listed other justifications for the question: ‘‘Frankly, as part of the ongoing debate over how we deal financially and legally with the burden of those who are not here legally. That is a relevant issue.’’
Trump had raised the possibility that some kind of addendum could be printed separately after further litigation of the issue.
‘‘We’ll see what happens,’’ Trump said. ‘‘We could start the printing now and maybe do an addendum after we get a positive decision. So we’re working on a lot of things, including an executive order.’’
Whether an executive order or an addendum is feasible at this stage was not clear, and any shift almost certainly would carry extra costs.
Were Trump to issue an executive order, it is likely that those suing would return to the federal judges who have already blocked the citizenship question and either ask them to clarify that their injunctions apply to Trump’s new executive order, or ask for new injunctions to yield the same effect.
If judges agreed, the administration once again would be stymied and forced to take the battle to higher courts. In the meantime, the administration will also have to work through discovery in the existing cases, potentially having to reveal more unflattering details about their handling of the citizenship question.
Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said there is ‘‘no path’’ forward for the government to add the question at this point.
‘‘The court vacated the Voting Rights Act rationale as a contrived pretext,’’ he said. ‘‘What they’re trying to do now is the textbook definition of a pretext: telling the court, ‘We plan to do this but we don’t know why yet.’ ’’
Tacking on the citizenship question through an addendum is also fraught with legal and practical risks.
Census experts say that, among other concerns, an addendum would probably violate the bureau’s strict rules on testing a question, which include considering how the placement of a question on the form affects respondents’ likelihood of filling it out.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, said such a proposal is ‘‘neither operationally feasible nor scientifically sound, and it could not, at any rate, be pulled off in time for the 2020 Census.’’
In litigation earlier this year, the government stressed that forms needed to go to the printer by July 1, prompting the Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the question.
Trump’s comments about finding an alternate route came as government lawyers scrambled to find a legal path to carry out the president’s wishes despite their conclusions in recent days that no such avenue exists, according to people familiar with the matter.
‘‘It’s kind of shocking that they still don’t know what they’re doing,’’ said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. His organization is representing some of the plaintiffs in the case in Maryland. ‘‘We’re in this posture because they don’t know what the real plan is.’’
The debate over adding the question had seemed settled after the Supreme Court ruled last week against the Trump administration. As late as Tuesday evening, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, said the administration was dropping its effort and was printing the census forms without it.
But Trump, in tweets Wednesday and Thursday, said he was not giving up.
The reversal came after Trump talked by phone with conservative allies who urged him not to give up the fight, according to a senior White House official and a Trump adviser, who both spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Material from The New York Times was used in this report.