Donald Trump has capitulated over his plan to insert a citizenship question into the next census – in a major defeat after he vowed to do so.

In an appearance at the Rose Garden of the White House in which he was both scornful and mocking, the US president claimed he was not backing down over finding out how many people in the country were citizens.

Yet, he said he had decided that for reasons of practicality, he was ordering his commerce department to secure the information by a different means, and not by using an executive order to try to force the question into the 2020 census.

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“Are you a citizen of the United States of America? Oh gee, I’m sorry, I just can’t answer that question,” Mr Trump said sarcastically, as he claimed “far left Democrats” were trying to obscure the number of undocumented people in the country.

“Today, I am here to say we are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population.”

Mr Trump has placed immigration at the centre of his re-election campaign and believes few issues energise and motivate his supporter base more.

He had vowed to introduce a citizenship question to the 2020 census and the department of commerce, which oversees the process, claimed it would help the government provide services more efficiently.

Critics said it could put off minorities from responding – perhaps as many as six million people – a view that has hardened since it was revealed the architect of the plan, Tom Hofeller, who died last year, said it would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites”.

Last month, in a mixed ruling, the Supreme Court said the Trump administration had not provided sufficient reasons for including the question in the census. The court indicated it was prepared to listen to further evidence from the government.

Nancy Pelosi reacts to Supreme Court blocking citizenship question from entering 2020 Census

At that point, the justice department told reporters it was backing away from including the question. That position, however, was quickly reversed after the president announced on Twitter he was pushing ahead with the plan.

“The news reports about the department of commerce dropping its quest to put the citizenship question on the census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE,” he said. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”

It was then reported Mr Trump was intending to use an executive order to put the question on the census, for the first time since 1950. The media had been expecting him to announce the news at the White House on Thursday afternoon. ABC News was the first to then report the president had changed his mind, and he was backing away from including the question, something he appeared unhappy to announce.

Appearing with attorney general William Barr, and commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, Mr Trump said he said he was ordering every federal government agency to provide the department of commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens in the country. “We will leave no stone unturned,” he said.

Mr Barr claimed the administration was changing tactics for logistical reasons, not legality. He claimed there was “ample justification” to enquire about citizenship status. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was among those groups that challenged the administration’s attempt to add the question.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project, said in a statement: “Trump’s attempt to weaponise the census ends not with a bang but a whimper.

“He lost in the Supreme Court, which saw through his lie about needing the question for the Voting Rights Act. It is clear he simply wanted to sow fear in immigrant communities and turbocharge Republican gerrymandering efforts by diluting the political influence of Latino communities.”

The development comes as the administration plans to launch a roundup of undocumented migrants this Sunday in 10 cities including Miami. New Orleans was also due to be included in the crackdown, but the operation there was postponed because of expected storms. 

Activists told the Associated Press they were gearing up for protests. Organisers estimated a rally planned for Saturday in Chicago would draw around 10,000 people. 

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