Many years ago, I spent a restless night as a volunteer in a North Carolina homeless shelter listening to the man in the next room promise that in just about one more minute, he was coming over to punch me in the face. Eventually he talked himself down, fell asleep, and woke up remembering nothing.
Over the July 4 holiday, however, I was reminded of that evening: The White House has adopted the same angry-drunk rhetorical mode, as President Donald Trump seems to be trying to talk himself into defying the Supreme Court.
Most likely, Trump and his Court will move on to other things, but they may not. And if the administration tries to end-run the Court, it will set off a constitutional crisis of a kind that even Richard Nixon ultimately did not dare to provoke.
To Trump and those around him, I suspect, the crisis has already begun. To them, it consists in this: Trump’s own Supreme Court—bought with dark money and earned with power politics—ruled against him on an issue of the highest consequence. This is a first for this Court, and Trump seems not to know how to handle it.
Let’s review the bidding. After Trump’s secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, took office in 2017, he ordered that the 2020 census questionnaire ask whether each member of each American household is a U.S. citizen. The question was on a conservative wish list. Opponents (and Census Bureau experts) warned that many immigrants would be too intimidated to respond to the form at all, and their exclusion from the tally would help shift political power to the Republican Party. Ross, however, claimed that the question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. He stuck to that story right up to moment when five justices—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—rejected it as a clumsy lie.