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Opinion Trump’s efforts to rig the census may already be working

While speaking to reporters inside the Oval Office, President Trump defended the inclusion of a citizenship question in the upcoming census survey on July 1. (Video: The Washington Post)

One of the characteristic features of Donald Trump’s presidency is how he has taken the institutions and practices that used to be considered outside partisanship and above the interests of any individual, and turned them to his own ends.

In some cases, it’s for his own personal aggrandizement, as he’s doing by turning the traditional Fourth of July event from a celebration of the country’s independence to a celebration of himself. In others, as with the 2020 Census, it’s to use the federal government to advance the interests of the Republican Party.

But because President Trump and those who work for him are such a bunch of half-witted bumblers, they can’t help but make their bad faith and corrupt intent obvious to all. Unfortunately, even if they can’t manage to get a citizenship question added to the census, they may have already achieved their goal of frightening immigrants from participating to enhance the political power of white people and the GOP.

Which was always the unmistakable goal. As recently discovered documents revealed, a Republican consultant with a specialty in gerrymandering worked closely with the Trump administration in preparing to add the citizenship question. His analysis showed that doing so would give an electoral advantage to “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites,” as he put it, by discouraging immigrants (including not just the undocumented but those here legally as well) from answering the census, thereby making their communities look smaller than they actually are so they could be deprived of resources and representation.

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Then the administration concocted a preposterous cover story claiming that the purpose of the citizenship question was to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act. Even Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ruled that it was “contrived.” But instead of simply barring the Commerce Department (which oversees the Census Bureau) from adding the question, he essentially granted them a do-over, telling them to come up with a different explanation, presumably one that will not be such an obvious lie.

Time is now getting short, as the Census Bureau was supposed to begin printing the hundreds of millions of necessary forms this Monday. And when Trump was asked why it’s so important to add a citizenship question to the census, he too was unable to come up with any explanation that could sound remotely credible:

I think it’s very important to find out if somebody’s a citizen as opposed to an illegal. I think that there’s a big difference to me between being a citizen of the United States and being an illegal. And you know, the Democrats want to treat the illegals with health care and with other things better than they treat the citizens of our country. If you look at a coal miner that has black lung disease, you’re talking about people that get treated better than the coal miner.

First of all, even the question as the administration wants to ask it doesn’t determine whether anyone is “an illegal.” It asks only if people in the household are or are not citizens; the latter would include people who are in the country legally but aren’t citizens, such as green-card holders. Maybe Trump knows that, or maybe not.

On Trump’s odd tangent about sick coal miners, you will not be surprised to learn that Trump and Republicans have been trying to undermine protections and compensation for coal miners with black lung disease.

What’s important about all this is that Trump is saying that the reason we need to inquire about citizenship is to locate undocumented immigrants to make sure they don’t receive government benefits. And not, say, to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Most importantly, Trump seems to think that the census is some kind of enforcement arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, attempting “to find out if somebody’s a citizen as opposed to an illegal.” As the Census Bureau itself notes, it does not share information with law enforcement agencies.

That too is something Trump might or might not be aware of, but what we can say for certain is that he would like people to believe it’s not true. Nothing would make Trump happier than if every immigrant thought that filling out the census form would mean that ICE agents are going to be busting down their doors. The more frightened immigrants are of census takers, the less likely they’ll be to answer the census, which will accomplish the goal of enhancing the political power of Republicans and whites.

Unfortunately, by now that goal has probably been largely accomplished. While I’d predict that Chief Justice Roberts will reverse his position and allow the citizenship question to be included once the administration comes up with some marginally less ludicrous rationale, even if he doesn’t, the damage has already been done.

It’s been done not just by this controversy, but by all the actions of Trump and his administration: the constant demonization of immigrants, the stepped-up ICE raids, the brutalization of asylum seekers arriving at the border (especially children), the move to deport legal immigrants if they take advantage of government benefits for which they’re eligible, the endless insistence that we desperately need a border wall. Every day of this presidency has told immigrants — including those here legally — that the federal government is not just hostile to them but will find any excuse it can to kick them out of the country.

So you could hardly blame any immigrant — or millions of immigrants — for not just reluctance to tell a census worker their citizenship status, but not wanting to talk to them at all. Which is exactly what Trump and the Republicans have been after.

Read more:

Chris Dick: The 2020 Census is still at risk

Hugh Hewitt: The census belongs to the president. He needs to get it back. Here’s how.

The Post’s View: It’s official: Trump fibbed on the census. Now he should just give it up.

David Von Drehle: Our society has rules. Thankfully, John Roberts knows when to break them.

Dana Milbank: John Roberts pulls out the thesaurus for one of Trump’s nearly 11,000 lies