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Trump just admitted something he probably shouldn’t have about the census citizenship question

President Trump said he is considering an executive order to try to force inclusion of a citizenship question as part of the 2020 Census. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Trump just explained why he thinks we need a citizenship question on the census. But in doing so, he seems to have said the quiet part out loud — and conceivably could have undercut the Justice Department’s legal case.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said you need the census citizenship question “for many reasons.”

“Number one, you need it for Congress — you need it for Congress for districting,” he said Friday. “You need it for appropriations — where are the funds going? How many people are there? Are they citizens? Are they not citizens? You need it for many reasons.”

Take note of that first one. Not only was a redistricting rationale not mentioned by the administration in its failed legal defense of the question, but it was actually something the other side argued was the administration’s true motivation. The plaintiffs in the case — and many who oppose the citizenship question — have argued that this is a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to gain a potential game-changing tool in redistricting.

It’s a little complicated, so bear with me. Basically, Republicans would like to be able to draw districts according to the number of voting-age citizens, rather than total population, because that would increase the power of rural and more conservative areas with fewer noncitizens. The problem is they don’t have the data necessary to attempt it — and then hope it passes legal muster. Adding a citizenship question would give them the data tool they need.

You can read more on this here, but suffice it to say: The U.S. Supreme Court has said congressional districts must be apportioned to the states according to total population, but it has not said those states cannot then draw those districts according to citizen voting-age population (CVAP).

This is more than hypothetical. It has been studied by some of the party’s most influential voices on redistricting. One study of how this might play out in Texas — a state with a large noncitizen population — said drawing districts using CVAP “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites,” while diluting the political power of Latinos.

The 2015 study was written by the late Republican redistricting guru Thomas Hofeller. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the guy whose fingerprints appear to be on the Justice Department’s legal rationale for the census citizenship question. We learned that after Hofeller’s daughter discovered some relevant documents on his computer after his death last year.

What’s more, in arguments to the Supreme Court, U.S. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco explicitly said that drawing the districts according to citizen voting-age population was not part of the administration’s rationale.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “did not rely on that rationale in his decisional memorandum,” Francisco said. “Instead, he relied on DOJ’s explanation — which respondents, despite hundreds of pages of briefing, have never challenged — that citizenship data from the [American Community Survey] has substantial limitations.”

Elsewhere in the case, the government said such data would be valuable for legal cases involving redistricting and the Voting Rights Act, but it did not say it would be used to actually draw districts.

The trouble with having Trump talk about issues that he isn’t that personally invested in is that he sometimes says more than he should — either because he doesn’t care or because he’s not versed. This appears to be one of those instances.

The question now is whether those fighting the citizenship question in court can use these comments to argue that Trump has revealed the administration’s and the Republican Party’s true goals. The administration has not yet signaled what its new rationale will be, but Trump’s comments certainly point in a different direction than before -- and a potentially partisan one, at that.