TUESDAY SEEMED to bring a crucial victory in the contest between President Trump and the democratic institutions he attacks. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the administration would abandon plans to ask a question on the 2020 Census about people’s citizenship status. After the Supreme Court repudiated Mr. Ross’s “contrived” explanation for asking the question, the addition of which would help Republicans in divvying up political representation, there would not be enough time for the administration to pursue its legal case and print census forms on time. So the Commerce Department decided to surrender and proceed with the printing.
Then Mr. Trump threw a temper tantrum. “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!” he tweeted Wednesday. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
Government officials quickly reversed course, telling a Maryland judge they “have been instructed to examine whether there is a path forward, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision that would allow us to include the citizenship question on the census,” according to Assistant Attorney General Joseph Hunt. The Justice Department would seek expedited Supreme Court review if the Trump administration could establish some better reason to ask the question — one, presumably, that did not drip with bad faith like the last one.
Good luck. At this point, the justices could not forget that the administration lied about its reasons for adding the question. What are the real reasons?
The rhetoric of Mr. Trump and his allies suggests they are motivated by the anti-immigrant fervor that has increasingly gripped the Republican Party. Yet federal law guarantees that census responses are strictly confidential. In other words, the president could not use the decennial census to crack down on illegal immigrants. The real value for Republicans lies in how the change would help them manipulate the electoral system for partisan gain.
The added question would, first, discourage immigrants worried their responses would not be kept secret from returning their forms. This would depress the count in areas of the country that tend to elect Democrats, reducing the political representation they would be due and cutting the federal funding they would get. Down the road, states could also use census citizenship data to reformulate how political district maps are drawn, so that they are based on their eligible voter population rather than their total population, as all are now. This, too, would help Republicans.
Of all the things the federal government does, the census must be a nonpartisan exercise with these overriding goals in mind: figuring out how many people are in the country and where they are. The courts rightly decided to defend it against a partisan Trump administration assault. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman wrote a careful, detailed evisceration of the decision to add the question. That teed up Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to erect some guardrails around this wayward president. Mr. Trump should listen to the wiser voices in his administration and finally surrender in his quest to warp the census.