There’s a certain kind of baloney that people in politics regularly toss around that is infuriating yet ubiquitous. Republicans are particularly profligate users in areas such as abortion and voting rights. When they pass laws creating needless hurdles for providers offering abortions, they claim what really concerns them is the health and welfare of women. When they restrict voting rights, they claim they are trying to stop voter fraud to maintain the sacred integrity of the ballot.
That’s just rhetoric, though. Nobody’s going to throw them in jail for serving up that kind of nonsense. But if you do it under oath and there’s a paper trail proving that you’re lying, that’s something entirely different.
Which brings us to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who testified Thursday on the ongoing scandal that is the Trump administration’s attempt to add a question to the 2020 Census asking how many people in each household are and aren’t U.S. citizens.
First, some context.
The administration knows full well that the addition of a citizenship question will significantly hurt response rates, because it will make some people uneasy about filling out the census. They also know immigrant communities are almost certain to see the largest drop-offs, not just from people who are undocumented but also from all immigrants, especially given the Trump administration’s aggressive targeting of them for harassment, vilification and deportation. Because Census Bureau data is used to determine how so many government programs are run, undercounting those communities will mean they get fewer resources and less political power.
Everyone understands this — everyone. But the administration, and Ross in particular, pretends that the only reason they want to add a citizenship question is so the Justice Department can properly enforce the Voting Rights Act.
As cover stories go, it’s a particularly ludicrous one. You don’t need citizenship data for every block in the country to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and the Trump administration isn’t exactly gung-ho about protecting voting rights anyway. But it’s the story they settled on. Last March, when Ross was asked about it under oath, he said, “Department of Justice, as you know, initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.” In another hearing, he said he “got the request from the Department of Justice” and later said “the Justice Department is the one who made the request of us.”
Those were lies, as was proved when a lawsuit over the question produced emails written by Ross, his aides and people in the Justice Department. In fact, aides acting on Ross’s behalf asked the Justice Department to submit a request asking for a citizenship question, plainly so Ross could then say it was happening only because Justice requested it. But the Justice Department was reluctant; at one point Ross emailed the director of the department’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, “I am mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?” The director replied, “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question.”
Ross also falsely told Congress that he had not talked with anyone in the White House about the citizenship question. In fact, Stephen K. Bannon, then President Trump’s chief political adviser, called Ross to tell him to speak about a citizenship question to Kris Kobach, the Republican Party’s most noted promoter of voter suppression, as Ross later admitted.
So when Ross testified today, how would he explain his previous false testimony and the emails proving he had lied? It turns out all you need is a little creativity.
“We understood that the Department of Justice might want a citizenship question reinstated on the decennial census,” Ross testified. “I instructed staff to follow up with DOJ for a written statement confirming whether or not DOJ was going to ask for reinstatement of the question.” So there you go: He “understood” it was coming. A rumor, a feeling, an intuition. Remarkable!
Democrats on the Oversight Committee were not having it. “Mr. Secretary, you lied to Congress, you misled the American people, and you are complicit in the Trump administration’s intent to suppress the growing political power of the nonwhite population,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “You have already done great harm to the Census in 2020, and you have zero credibility, and you should, in my opinion, resign.”
The truth is that there are about a dozen reasons Ross should resign, and this is only one of them. But it’s also true that since the lawsuits challenging the citizenship question will ultimately reach the Supreme Court where there’s a 5-4 conservative majority, it’s likely that this effort to put yet another thumb on the scales for the GOP, offered as it is in complete bad faith, will be allowed to go forward. And that’s a scandal, too.