It had seemed a done deal — then came the tweet.
The Supreme Court ruled late last month against President Trump’s inclusion of a citizenship question — “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” — in the 2020 U.S. census.
Chief Justice John Roberts had concluded that the administration’s argument for the question “seems to have been contrived.” The Department of Justice and Department of Commerce conceded and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he disagreed with the court’s decision, but would respect it.
Printing of the questionnaire, without the citizenship question, had commenced.
The matter was settled.
That is, until Wednesday, when President Trump posted on Twitter: “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! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
And everything hit the fan.
Questioned by a federal judge involved in one of three census lawsuits, DOJ lawyers expressed their confusion. “The tweet this morning was the first I had heard of the president’s position on this issue,” one told the judge. “But, obviously, as you can imagine, I am doing my absolute best to figure out what’s going on.”
Another said that the situation was “fluid.”
Then we learned Thursday that Trump was indeed pushing aggressively for the question. He was even threatening to issue an executive order.
“The Departments of Commerce and Justice have been instructed to examine whether there is a path forward, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision, that would allow for the inclusion of the citizenship question on the census,” Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing on Friday.
The long-range forecast: cloudy and chaotic.
For one thing, here’s a president who impulsively jerked the rug out from under members of his own administration.
For another, Trump had petitioned the Supreme Court to fast-track the case to meet the census printing deadline of June 30. Now he’s considering delaying the census because the case wasn’t settled to his liking.
Informing all of this is the revelation of a 2015 Republican-sponsored study that concluded that adding a citizenship question would result in “radical redrawing” of legislative districts that would benefit Republicans and hurt Democrats.
This reveals a more likely motive for adding the question than the one the court found to be “contrived”: that it would help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Census data is used to appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding, draw legislative districts and reallocate congressional seats. It should be above partisan political manipulations.
As for Trump’s tweet about “fake news reports” — that claim is itself a fake. Census Bureau professionals say the citizenship question would significantly depress participation and lead to an inaccurate count. They say they have better ways of determining citizenship.
Meanwhile, news coverage of the issue probably already has had a chilling effect on census response rates.
So, even if the president loses the legal battle, he may yet win the war.
Fears have been raised. Doubt has been cast.
The 2020 U.S. census has been hijacked as a political weapon.