Over the past month and a half, President Trump has set in motion plans to strike Iran, ordered nationwide immigration raids, threatened punitive and imminent tariffs on Mexico and said he would fight to get a citizenship question on the census that was rejected by the Supreme Court.
Each time, he launched extensive planning, created angst even among his own officials and some supporters and devoted significant government resources to preparation.
And each time, he ultimately pulled the plug.
Trump’s renewed push for a 2020 Census citizenship question is the latest example of something he launched and then just as quickly scrapped. After the Supreme Court ruled two weeks ago that the administration hadn’t been honest about its reasons for the question, the Justice and Commerce departments conceded defeat — even doing so in court. But then Trump tweeted that he would continue to push for it, sending the Justice Department scrambling to rescue its legal case.
Lawyers, one of whom called in from vacation to an emergency teleconference with a judge, pleaded with the judge to understand their dilemma. They admitted they weren’t sure what their bosses, including Trump, actually wanted to do, but said they would find out. Answers were slow in coming. The Justice Department then tried to swap out its team of lawyers — apparently in part because of dissension about how the whole thing was being handled — but that effort was rejected by judges in two separate cases. It was a mess.
And it was all for naught. For the second time in nine days, the administration on Thursday waved the white flag on the census citizenship question. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr tried to put a nice spin on it, with Trump saying he wasn’t “backing down” and Barr congratulating Trump for signing an executive action seeking to try and get citizenship data by other means.
But this was clearly backing down. Things were left in almost exactly the same place they were after the Supreme Court decision, except those Justice lawyers apparently get to explain to the judge (again) why the thing they told him before no longer applies.
It’s a hell of a way to do business.
Any of these last-minute about-faces could possibly be justified, by themselves. There was bipartisan praise for Trump’s restraint on Iran, even as Trump’s explanation didn’t exactly make sense. (He said he called it off at the last minute after asking for a loss-of-life assessment, which should have been available at the start of the process.) The immigration raids were delayed amid concerns by some and hopes of a bipartisan deal but appear to be on again in the next few days (for now!). The Mexico tariffs were called off after Mexico agreed to help stem the flow of immigrants headed northward, but Trump gave it (and the U.S. government) only about 10 days to figure things out. A deal was reached with less than two days to go.
The totality of all of these things, though, suggests a president who is perfectly willing to set the government in motion on something that he either doesn’t intend to follow through on or can’t make up his mind about. It doesn’t really matter the scale or how many government servants might ultimately waste time preparing for something big; everything is subject to change.
But what if he had just … decided what he wanted to do before setting things in motion? The census citizenship question is a great example of something where there was really no need to send everyone running around setting their hair on fire. Nor was there a need for nine days of Justice Department lawyers being tortured while trying to make Trump’s apparent Twitter whim a reality.
It’s a recipe for a lot of people in very important positions being pretty upset at and frustrated by the president they serve.