The government had begun printing census forms, the Commerce Department had publicly announced its legal surrender, and Justice Department lawyers had rested their case in court. But President Trump wasn’t ready to give up the fight.
With a tweet that sent much of his administration scrambling over the Fourth of July holiday, Trump decided to unilaterally revive the government’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
It’s a move that fits into a long pattern of Trump going to the mat — and occasionally overruling his own administration — to force a fight over polarizing issues. While the strategy has so far yielded mixed results, it nonetheless allows Trump to cast himself as a relentless change agent — an image that has become central to his reelection bid.
“We’re fighting very hard against the system, that’s a very difficult system but we’ll make a decision,” Trump told reporters Friday, adding that he was “thinking of” issuing an executive order to add the citizenship question to census forms.
The Trump administration, which told a federal court Friday that it would reverse its plans and continue pursuing the citizenship question, faces long odds. The Supreme Court recently blocked the government from moving ahead with asking about citizenship, after saying the administration’s stated rationale was “contrived.”
Stung by that legal rebuke, and facing fast-arriving deadlines to move forward with the constitutionally mandated census, Trump’s government publicly decided to drop its effort to add the citizenship question. On Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the decennial population tally, said the administration was abandoning its effort and had begun printing the census forms without the citizenship question.
But the appearance of a premature surrender — and the backlash it caused among conservatives — was enough to cause Trump to intervene.
“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!” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
The president has repeatedly rushed into the brink with last-minute reversals in similar situations, creating the impression that he is saving his administration from throwing in the towel on key priorities before exhausting all options.
In December, after Trump’s congressional negotiators had agreed to support a bipartisan spending deal to keep the government open — without providing funding for building new border barriers — Trump overruled them.
A 35-day partial government shutdown ensued, with the president and lawmakers locked in a stalemate over border-wall funding. Trump used the battle to attempt to bolster his political prospects, running digital ads to inform voters about his hard-line position.
When Trump did finally agree to give in and sign a spending bill, he coupled his surrender with the announcement of a national emergency declaration that he said would allow the government to repurpose existing funds to build the wall.
Several federal judges have since ruled against Trump’s effort to spend taxpayer money without congressional approval.
Despite the legal setbacks, the president can still tell voters he is fighting as hard as possible for his priorities, said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for Republican House leadership and the Republican National Committee.
“For a big part of the base, activity is achievement,” he said. “Demonstrating a willingness to fight is not just as important but, to a big part of the base, more important than having a cohesive strategy to win.”
For Trump, losing quietly on certain issues is more personally offensive than going down with a dramatic fight, said Tim O’Brien, author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald,” a Trump biography.
“This is a president who always thinks theatrically — he doesn’t think strategically,” he said. “The second any issue gets perceived or portrayed as ‘Trump lost,’ is almost a guarantor that he’s going to change course pretty quickly.”
For a president who promised voters they would be tired of winning, Trump has shown no hesitation to take on losing legal battles. Courts have struck down his attempts to strip money from sanctuary cities, block congressional inquiries into his finances and overturn several environmental regulations.
In all, federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration more than 60 times over the past two years.
Trump usually appeals negative rulings against him, often with the goal of reaching the Supreme Court — a strategy he described in transparent detail after his national emergency declaration in February.
“We’ll have a national emergency, and we will then be sued and they will sue us in the 9th Circuit,” he said in a February news conference in the Rose Garden. “We will possibly get a bad ruling, and then we’ll get another bad ruling and then we’ll end up in the Supreme Court, and hopefully we’ll get a fair shake, and we’ll win in the Supreme Court.”
In the legal battle over the census, the high court did not serve as Trump’s buffer against lower courts. Opponents have argued before federal judges that the citizenship question would result in an undercount of millions of people who fear acknowledging that a noncitizen is part of their household. Hispanics would be disproportionately affected.
Trump appeared to give his legal opponents more ammunition Friday by making comments that indicated the citizenship question was about impacting how federal districts are drawn and how taxpayer dollars are allocated. That rationale — which Justice Department lawyers had explicitly denied in court — appears to be at odds with laws that require congressional representation and federal grants to be based on total population, including noncitizens.
“Number one, you need it for Congress — you need it for Congress for districting,” Trump told reporters Friday at the White House. “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.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in his opinion that the Commerce Department’s stated purpose for adding the question — that it was requested by the Justice Department to aid in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act — did not past muster.
But where his lawyers saw defeat, Trump saw an invitation to try again.
“I have a lot of respect for Justice Roberts, but he didn’t like it, but he did say, ‘Come back,’ ” Trump told reporters Friday at the White House. “Essentially he said, ‘Come back.’ ”
Heye said Trump will not hesitate to use negative court rulings to his political advantage, by casting himself as a victim of an unfair system.
“If you’re in Trump’s base, everything that he does reinforces his central argument that the system is rigged,” he said. “So if the court rules in his favor, it’s a big victory for Trump. If the court rules against him, Trump can say, ‘This is how rigged the system is against you.’ Win or lose, he still can move that argument forward.’’
While the base-first strategy has helped solidify Trump’s support, it’s not clear whether the president’s approach does more harm than good for his electoral prospects.
Trump’s willingness to push the limit to fight for his priorities might also come across as chaos to some moderate voters.
Trump revived a trade skirmish with China with new tariffs last year after his treasury secretary said publicly that the United States was “putting the trade war on hold.” Trump banned transgender troops from serving in the military and announced he was pulling troops out of Syria without getting buy-in from then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who abruptly resigned in December after the decision.
And on immigration, he has threatened to shut down the southern border, impose tariffs on Mexico and reinstitute family separations.
Accusations that he is politicizing the census or sparking a potential constitutional crisis by defying a judge’s ruling to add a citizenship question could contribute to the sense of White House disorder that has turned off swing voters, O’Brien said.
“Immigration is an issue where there is an overwhelmingly broad public consensus,” he said. “People support immigration as long as it’s well-managed, and they don’t want to see it politicized.”