I realize that many times before you’ve been told, “If this weren’t the Trump administration where there’s a new scandal every day, this would be a major scandal.” You sighed and said, “I’m sure that’s true,” then moved on. But let me explain why the administration’s treatment of the U.S. census should, in fact, be a major scandal, particularly given some blockbuster news we just got.
This scandal has a malign conspiracy, public lies, possible perjury, and an unrelenting assault not just on a core American institution enshrined in the Constitution but on democracy itself.
As you may have heard, the Trump administration has decided to add a question to the 2020 Census asking whether those answering are U.S. citizens. It’s already widely known that it’s hard enough already to get people, particularly in immigrant communities, to answer the questions, because there’s not only concern about privacy but also fear that the census will be used to target people for harassment or even deportation.
A citizenship question — which hasn’t been part of the decennial census for 70 years — is all but guaranteed to make people even more reluctant to answer the questions. That’s particularly true in the environment of fear that President Trump has created for all immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and indeed for all racial, religious and ethnic minorities.
That is, of course, the whole point. When communities with lots of immigrants and minorities are undercounted, that means fewer federal dollars will flow to them and they will be underrepresented in the redistricting that occurs after the census. The addition of the citizenship question is one more part of a broader Republican vote suppression effort that includes aggressive gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter purges and restriction of early voting.
But like all those efforts, the administration’s decision to effectively turn the census into a tool to maintain Republican power has to be clothed in some kind of reasonable-sounding justification. It need not even be all that plausible; all that’s necessary is to give Republicans something they can say when Democrats point out what they’re doing. We have to pass voter ID because of the mythical epidemic of voter impersonation fraud. We have to purge the rolls because we care so deeply about efficient database management. And we have to ask about citizenship because the Trump administration needs complete information to enforce the Voting Rights Act and safeguard the rights of minorities.
That comical justification was what the administration, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in particular, offered to explain why it was so important to add the citizenship question (the census is under the authority of the Commerce Department). When they began raising the possibility, they said that the whole idea came from the Department of Justice, which made a request in December to the Commerce Department to add the question.
That, it has now become clear, was a lie. In fact, the Commerce Department asked the Justice Department to make the request, in what seems an obvious attempt to provide the cover story that they could use from that point forward. We know this because as part of a lawsuit filed by multiple states to stop the addition of the citizenship question, emails have been obtained that show Ross and other Commerce officials stating exactly what they were doing. Here’s part of The Post’s report, from Tara Bahrampour:
In a May 2, 2017, email to Earl Comstock, director of the department’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, Ross wrote: “I am mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?”
Comstock responded the same day, promising to “get that in place” and adding, “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question, and we have the court cases to illustrate that DOJ has a legitimate need for the question to be included.”
This appears to contradict Ross’s testimony in March before the House Ways and Means Committee saying that the Justice Department had initiated the request for the question.
Indeed it does. On March 22, Ross testified before that committee when Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) asked him about the citizenship question. He began his response this way:
“The Department of Justice, as you know, initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.”
With the release of these emails, we now know that was a part of the cover story that Ross and others in the administration concocted to argue falsely that the citizenship question would be added only to satisfy the Trump Justice Department’s deep concern for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
I doubt that Ross will be prosecuted for perjury, but it’s hard to see why he couldn’t be.
We also learn from an April 2017 email that “Steve Bannon has asked that the Secretary talk to someone about the Census,” which further undercuts the administration’s cover story that 1) this only came up because of the December 2017 Justice Department request, and 2) that it’s all about getting an accurate count to aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
So here’s what we know:
- Almost immediately after taking office, people in the Trump administration, including the president’s chief political strategist and the secretary of commerce, begin pushing to add the citizenship question.
- Commerce officials decide to “work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question.”
- In September 2017, a Trump appointee at the Justice Department writes to officials at Commerce that “It sounds like we can do whatever you all need us to do,” adding that “the AG,” meaning Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “is eager to assist.”
- The letter making the request finally gets written in December 2017, by a Trump appointee who spent much of his career defending Republican redistricting efforts.
- The administration then publicly claims that the reason the citizenship question is being added is that the Justice Department has requested it so that the Voting Rights Act can be properly enforced and the rights of minorities safeguarded. In the statement released upon announcing the change on March 26, Ross claims that the request from the Department of Justice initiated the process, and after a careful review, “I have determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census is necessary to provide complete and accurate data in response to the DOJ request.”
- Ross also testifies under oath, falsely, that the entire process was initiated by the Justice Department.
- On June 21, Ross puts out a new letter in which he changes his story, saying he had been considering the question for some time and, as part of the process, he “inquired whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) would support, and if so would request, inclusion of a citizenship question as consistent with and useful for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.”
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that sounds like Ross knew, because of the multiple lawsuits that have been filed or for some other reason, that his lies were going to be exposed and he ought to get out in front of them.
Ross certainly should no longer be in any position of authority in the U.S. government. But more broadly, we have documentary proof of what everybody already knew: Not only was the Trump administration lying about the census, but they also want to turn it into one more tool they can use to hold onto power and rig the system even further in their favor. The question now is whether they’re going to get away with it.