IT TOOK a couple of weeks, but President Trump finally accepted reality on Thursday, acknowledging that there was no legal way for him to force a citizenship question onto the 2020 Census. Those understandably worried about the nation’s fraying democratic institutions, and the unraveler in chief in the Oval Office, can take heart that those very institutions reined in a wayward president in this crucial instance.
Mr. Trump announced in a Rose Garden news conference that, instead of demanding that 2020 Census forms inquire about people’s citizenship status, he would order the federal government to use other ways to gather information on the citizenship of those residing in the United States. If all the president wanted was the data, this new strategy is where the Trump administration should have started, instead of attempting to mess with a decennial population count that must be as accurate as possible. The distribution of political representation and billions in federal spending depends on the census. From early on in the process, experts suggested that using other records could produce information of the sort the administration sought without altering census forms — and warned of the damage adding a citizenship question would do.
The Trump administration’s refusal to listen to those experts implied a chilling motivation: to get not more accurate census data but less accurate numbers, skewing the count by suppressing response rates from immigrant communities. Whether documented or undocumented, immigrants would be less likely to return their census forms, particularly in the current political environment, for fear the information would be used to target them. Because the districts of state lawmakers and members of Congress are based on total population, not just the voting-eligible population, suppressing immigrant response rates would disproportionately deprive of representation areas that lean toward Democrats.
What is more, once state governments had official census information on citizenship status, they could use it to alter the way they drew political maps, basing them on voting-eligible population rather than total population, further fixing the electoral system for Republicans at the expense of Democrats. In his Thursday news conference, Mr. Trump explicitly acknowledged this motivation.
Given the warnings of experts, the Trump administration had a difficult time explaining why its determination to upset the census was reasonable. The excuse Trump officials conjured was unbelievably thin, and the evidence of dishonesty abundant and conclusive. U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman wrote a thorough, blistering decision condemning the administration’s attempts to mislead the public and the courts about the real motivations. His careful work enabled Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to block Mr. Trump’s census question late last month. If there was a time for Mr. Roberts to stand up to the president, shielding a central function of government that must remain nonpartisan was it.
The president’s subsequent temper tantrum could not alter the fact that he and his top officials burned any assumption of good faith the courts might have been willing to extend them on the census issue, and there was no reasonable path to add the question in the face of that reality. One can only hope that the threat of adding the question has not already deterred people from returning their forms — and that the count proceeds in the professional, nonpartisan fashion that the administration should have wanted to begin with.