The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump asks lawyers if census can be delayed, calls Supreme Court decision ‘totally ridiculous’

Three judges have found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave a phony reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. (Video: Meg Kelly, Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

President Trump said Thursday that he is seeking to delay the constitutionally mandated census to give administration officials time to come up with a better explanation for why it should include a citizenship question.

Trump’s announcement, in tweets sent from Japan, came hours after the Supreme Court put on hold his administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, saying it had provided a “contrived” reason for wanting the information.

“Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census, in this case for 2020,” Trump wrote in his tweet. “I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter.”

Trump’s tweets were sent shortly after 2:30 a.m. local time in Osaka, where he is attending a summit with other global leaders.

Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that the government count the U.S. population every 10 years.

Without a delay sought by Trump, it was unclear whether there would be enough time for the Commerce Department to provide an explanation for the citizenship question that meets judicial approval. The administration has said a decision was needed by the end of June to add such a question; other officials have said there is a fall deadline.

Supreme Court puts census citizenship question on hold

The Constitution doesn’t specify when during the 10th year the census must be conducted.

“The problem at this point is not that the Constitution is dictating when the form needs to be finalized, but that the government has articulated the clock has run out,” said Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law expert and professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “The government has arguably not been fully candid with the courts to this point, and it won’t help the administration if they end up changing their tune.”

The government has spent much of the past month arguing against efforts by challengers to develop further factual evidence on the grounds that June 30 was an unmovable deadline.

It would require a fair amount of chutzpah on the government’s part to turn around and say we now have plenty of time to fix it,” Vladeck said.

No, the census has never been delayed. Even when it was really hard to do.

Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, said Trump did not appear to be suggesting a marginal adjustment of the census schedule for purposes of litigation but rather was trying try to mold the process to his needs.

Tribe called it an indication of “the administration’s contempt of the rule of law.”

“The combination of the president’s abject ignorance and manipulative flexibility on these matters is, at a minimum, quite telling,” Tribe said. “It suggests all matters — constitutional and legal — are subject to his whim.”

A string of lower-court judges found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated federal law and regulations in attempting to include the question on the census.

They starkly rebutted his claim that the information was first requested by the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities, and they noted Ross’s consultations with hard-line immigration advocates in the White House beforehand.

The decennial count of the nation’s population determines the size of each state’s congressional delegation, the number of votes it receives in the electoral college and how the federal government allocates hundreds of billions of dollars.

Trump says census would be ‘meaningless’ without citizenship question

Opponents of the citizenship question have characterized it as a political maneuver by the Trump administration. They say its inclusion, particularly at a time when noncitizens feel targeted by the government, will deter many immigrants and their family members from participating, reducing the count’s accuracy and harming people who live in areas with large immigrant populations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to say Thursday whether he thinks the census should be delayed when asked about the prospect at a news conference.

“I don’t know; I haven’t come to grips with that case,” he said. “I found it complicated.”

He added: “I think it’s kind of confusing. My general rule of thumb is if I’m confused about something, I don’t comment.”

Trump has publicly championed inclusion of the citizenship question for months.

Earlier this year, he tweeted that the census would be “meaningless” without the question and blamed “Radical Democrats” for trying to remove it.

Robert Barnes and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.