Late Tuesday afternoon, it appeared that the Trump administration had conceded defeat on its effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. After the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Commerce Department’s efforts to include a question to respondents about their citizenship status and with a deadline for printing census forms looming, the government backed down.
“We can confirm that the decision has been made to print the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire without a citizenship question, and that the printer has been instructed to begin the printing process,” a lawyer for the Justice Department wrote in an email to groups challenging the legality of the question in court.
In a statement, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lamented the necessary decision.
“I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” Ross said. “The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question. My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate census.”
With confirmation from Commerce, news outlets ran with the story. No citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Sure, allies of the president weren’t happy — one Texas congressman suggested that the administration should just ignore the lawyers’ advice — but the issue was settled.
In the era of President Trump, though, nothing is truly settled until Trump himself weighs in — and even then it's iffy.
On Wednesday morning, well after Justice and Commerce conceded defeat, Trump didn't.
“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!” the president wrote on Twitter. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
After the court’s decision last week, Trump said that he was seeking to delay the census, so that the Commerce Department could come up with a better explanation of why the citizenship question should be included, as the justices required.
Experts argue that the question is not only not critical to include but would, in fact, result in a less accurate accounting of the country’s population. But that’s incidental to this particular tweet; more important is how Trump has extended his use of the term “fake” to describe news he doesn’t like.
Trump has, in the past, been more circumspect about simply slapping the “fake” label on things he doesn't like. His typical pattern with such things is to make sweeping claims and then walk them back a bit, letting his supporters embrace the extreme version and mollifying critics with the partial retraction.
He slipped a bit in May of last year, when he declared explicitly in a tweet that “91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake).” Usually, he simply takes issue with anonymously sourced stories by calling them fake, even when they are later shown to be accurate.
But this Commerce Department thing? This is a new level.
Sure, it’s possible that Trump phoned Ross and told him to halt printing of the census forms while the legal fight plays out. Such a last-minute change would also not be the first such incident for the Trump White House and, in fact, seems quite possible.
Update: So it was. See below.
Even if that is the case, which isn't yet established, Trump is setting a remarkable bar for what he demands of the media: Even statements from members of his Cabinet or attorneys working for his Justice Department shouldn't necessarily be reported as fact.
There would be no reason at all for reporters to assume that the president's view on the subject differed from Ross's. After all, there is good reason for the Commerce Department to move forward with printing the forms (the timeline) and good reason to believe that the administration would give up the fight (the Supreme Court decision). As with the budget fight last December which seemed settled but then spurred a lengthy government shutdown, Trump seems to have had a change of heart — perhaps after hearing criticism from allies for whom the two preceding considerations are less important than the political aesthetics at play.
This says something about how Trump uses the term “fake,” certainly. Trump is demanding, in essence, that any report (well, any potentially embarrassing report) only be considered legitimate once he’s personally greenlit it — or risk being described using that pejorative term. It’s an extension of his “coverage is negative and therefore fake” line from last year: If it’s not something that his base wants to hear, it’s fake as well.
But this also says something important about Trump’s administration. Imagine being the commerce secretary and being undercut so directly and publicly. It reveals not only tension within the government but also his own relative impotence. If the guy in charge of the census can’t make a decision in concert with other agencies without being kneecapped by Trump, who in the government can have confidence that the same won’t happen to them?
The answer, of course, is: Only Trump, which is how he likes it.
It’s possible that the census forms won’t be printed over the short term without the citizenship question. That doesn’t mean that Tuesday’s reports were “fake.” It just means that the administration is often a mess.
Update: Late Wednesday, the government asked a court to allow it to reconsider the issue. An attorney for the Justice Department told the court that the “tweet this morning was the first I had heard of the President’s position on this issue.”
“If you were Facebook and an attorney for Facebook told me one thing,” the judge later replied, “and then I read a press release from Mark Zuckerberg telling me something else, I would be demanding that Mark Zuckerberg appear in court with you the next time because I would be saying I don’t think you speak for your client anymore.”
As we said: A mess.