It was a done deal — then came the tweet.
After the Supreme Court ruled late last month against President Trump’s inclusion of a citizenship question — “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” — in the U.S. census, with Chief Justice John Roberts concluding that the administration’s argument for the question “seems to have been contrived,” the matter seemed to be settled. The Department of Justice and Department of Commerce conceded and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he disagreed with the Court’s decision, but would respect it. Printing of the questionnaire, without the citizenship question, commenced.
Then, on Wednesday, President Trump tweeted: “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! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
And everything hit the fan.
Questioned by a federal judge involved in one of three census lawsuits, DOJ lawyers ex-pressed their confusion. “The tweet this morning was the first I had heard of the president’s position on this issue,” one told the judge. “But, obviously, as you can imagine, I am doing my absolute best to figure out what’s going on.”
Another said that the situation was “fluid.”
Then we learned Thursday that Trump was indeed pushing aggressively for “a path forward.” He was even threatening to issue an executive order to have his question included.
“The Departments of Commerce and Justice have been instructed to examine whether there is a path forward, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision, that would allow for the inclusion of the citizenship question on the census,” Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing Friday.
As we go to press late Friday afternoon to meet our deadline, we realize it’s possible there may be more chaos over the weekend.
There is much to dislike about this situation. For one thing, there’s a president who impulsively jerked the rug out from under members of his own administration, needlessly embarrassing them in front of other professionals. For another, the time element: Trump petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case in an expedited fashion to beat the census printing deadline of June 30. Now he’s considering delaying the census past the deadline because the case wasn’t settled to his liking.
Informing all of this is the revelation of a 2015 Republican-sponsored study that concluded that adding a citizenship question to the next census would result in “radical redrawing” of legislative districts that would benefit Republicans and hurt Democrats. This reveals a more likely motive for adding the question than the one the Court found to be “contrived.”
Census data is used to appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding, draw legislative districts and reallocate congressional seats. It should be above partisan political manipulations.
And it must be noted that Trump’s tweeted claim of “fake news reports” — is fake.
This is banana republic-level governing.
Trump continues to pander to his base by asking, “What’s wrong with asking the question?” But Census Bureau professionals say it would significantly depress participation and lead to an inaccurate count. They say they have better ways of determining citizenship.
We’d like to say that the outcome of this situation is clear, or even likely — reason and the legal system should be enough to fend off Trump’s attempts. But in today’s political climate, very little seems certain.
One thing is: If the citizenship question is added, by any means, the 2020 census will always be known as a politically influenced census with unreliable results.