As you’ve probably heard by now, the Trump administration has pulled yet another of its patented 180’s on the Census citizenship question. In some ways, of course, it’s no surprise. The nation has come to expect irrational and irresponsible last minute about-faces from the Great Prevaricator. That said, this one represents an especially unhinged act that deserves to be rejected forthwith by the federal courts.
One of the best summaries of what transpired yesterday and where things stand now comes from David A. Graham at The Atlantic. As Graham explains in “A Hearing in the Census Case Turns Surreal:Government lawyers faced an irate federal judge on Wednesday, after the president publicly contradicted what they had told the court.”, the Trump presidency has grown so absurd that even his own lawyers have no idea how to deal with the president:
Federal district-court Judge George Hazel convened a call with attorneys Wednesday, trying to understand what was happening. “I don’t know how many federal judges have Twitter accounts, but I happen to be one of them, and I follow the president, and so I saw a tweet that directly contradicted the position that Mr. Gardner had shared with me yesterday,” Hazel said, referring to the Justice Department lawyer Joshua Gardner.
In short, Hazel wanted to know whether the federal government was still trying to get the question on the census, as Trump had said, or not, as Gardner had said. The question was simple, but the answer turned out not to be. (The transcript is short, and worth reading in full.)
After explaining that the judge was understandably angry, even if he was somewhat sympathetic to the plight of a Justice Department attorney attempting to represent someone as unhinged as Trump, Graham explained that the judge ordered a 2:00 p.m. hearing tomorrow to get the matter settled and that, amazingly, Trump could still end up prevailing:
Incredibly, Trump might yet get away with using a citizenship question on the census to suppress participation. For one thing, the plaintiffs’ lawyers complained on the call that the president’s tweets achieved the same effect that they allege the citizenship question would: “It leaves the immigrant communities to believe that the government is still after information that could endanger them,” one said. (Hazel wryly noted that he couldn’t very well enjoin Trump from tweeting.)
The citizenship question, but not the idea itself. It remains possible that the government will rush a new appeal through the courts, get a favorable ruling from sympathetic conservative justices, and then try to get new questionnaires printed on a tight deadline. (This sets aside more bizarre—though not necessarily less likely—options, like some sort of executive order or simply defying the courts, as one congressman suggested Wednesday.)
If Trump does manage to get the citizenship question in the end, it will prove that dishonesty pays. Ross misled Congress about the genesis of the citizenship question, claiming that the Justice Department had requested it—when in fact, he had asked DOJ to request it. The government lied about the same matter in the court cases. Newly discovered documents suggest that DOJ lied when producing the request that Ross requested. Given its willingness to continue the fight, it seems possible that the government misrepresented the actual drop-dead deadline for printing the questionnaire. And the government lawyers misled the judge on Tuesday, though apparently through no fault of their own.
The decennial census is a massive logistical challenge, requiring the federal government to hire half a million people in an attempt to count every person in the United States. Pulling that off, though, might be easier than getting an honest and reliable answer out of the Trump administration.