In an announcement on Thursday, Trump backed down from his attempt to add a citizenship question to the decennial census.
Of course, Trump didn’t make it sound as though he was backing down. He vowed that he will sign an “executive order" that will direct federal agencies to give the Commerce Department — which oversees the census — records that will detail how many citizens and noncitizens live in the United States.
What that will mean is difficult to say, but one thing it will not mean is that the citizenship question will be added to the census in 2020. It is a victory for the rule of law, since the whole point of adding it was to make the count less accurate, for naked political purposes.
At one point during his remarks, Trump seemed to suggest that the citizenship question he wanted would have allowed the government to count the undocumented immigrants in this country; he then bashed Democrats for supposedly not wanting that number revealed — which is ludicrous, since a citizenship question wouldn’t have revealed anything of the sort.
Regardless, after Trump spoke, Attorney General William P. Barr delivered the bad news. Barr tried to sugarcoat it with an unctuous dose of sycophancy, repeatedly congratulating the president for his “effective action,” while announcing that the question will not be added.
In a presidency full of pratfalls and screwups, there have been few efforts characterized by quite the combination of boundless bad faith, obvious dishonesty and sheer incompetence as this one.
Let’s briefly remind ourselves of what a sorry mess this has been, from the beginning.
The Trump administration came into office determined to add the citizenship question to enhance the political power of Republicans and whites, as files from the hard drive of a dead Republican gerrymandering guru who had been advising the administration revealed.
The question would discourage responses from households that include noncitizens, leading to undercounts that would dilute representation and the awarding of federal dollars in those areas — which was the whole point.
Trump himself recently gave up the game when he blurted out that “you need it for Congress for districting.”
In fact, congressional districts are apportioned to states by total population, not by the number of citizens, and then district lines are also drawn using total population. But Republicans have long harbored a desire to use only numbers of citizens for redistricting, because it would allow them to supercharge their gerrymandering efforts and pull power away from urban areas where there are generally lots of Democrats.
Officials couldn’t reveal their real aims, of course, so the administration concocted a cover story that the Justice Department wanted the citizenship question as a way to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act, something about which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied under oath. The administration invoked executive privilege to keep documents about their decision-making under wraps.
After the Supreme Court rejected the attempt to add the question, saying the rationale was “contrived” and sending the matter back to the lower courts — which left open the possibility that administration officials might be able to develop another rationale — lawyers appeared to wave the white flag.
But the president ordered them to fight on.
It’s possible that administration lawyers sabotaged Trump’s effort at this point. They told the lower courts that they were trying to develop a “new rationale” for the citizenship question, which legal experts said actually telegraphed that the new rationale would inevitably be offered in bad faith. That would probably have meant legal defeat.
Indeed, at this point, the administration attempted to swap out its entire legal team, which immediately suggested that the original lawyers on the case didn’t want to continue the fight, precisely because they knew they could only do so by offering the new rationale in bad faith. In any case, a judge rejected that effort.
Meanwhile, the Census forms have already started to be printed.
Could the administration possibly have handled this affair in a more buffoonish way? It’s difficult to imagine how. Perhaps we should be thankful that they were so incompetent, because otherwise they might have gotten away with it.