The shortest way of describing what happened with Donald Trump’s census fiasco is that mendacity met the rule of law and, for now, the rule of law won. Trump tried to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, but the Supreme Court stopped him because the rationale his administration offered for the change was demonstrably false. The fallback plan he hinted at—of adding the question via executive order—never materialized because the president has no such authority. On Thursday, Trump gave up, though he pretended otherwise.
Unfortunately, his appearance Thursday—alongside Attorney General William Barr and a silent Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross—strongly suggests that the president and his enablers will keep trying to snow the public on this issue. Armed with an executive order mandating nothing that could not have been done from the get-go, Trump and Barr sought to camouflage their defeat with the mixture of partisan bile, self-contradiction, and half-truth from which the administration’s census policy has been concocted all along.
The “new option” touted by the president “to ensure a complete and timely count of the noncitizen population” was available to the administration from day one. Not only does the Census Act authorize the secretary of commerce to seek information from other government establishments, but it expresses Congress’s preference for such data acquisition over “direct inquiries,” where possible. The secretary concluded, however, that reliance on administrative records would be inadequate to determine the actual size and location of the U.S. noncitizen population. Now Trump insists that the data project will yield results “far more accurate” than the direct questioning he and Ross championed. In other words, the president is blithely saying the exact opposite of what his administration previously asserted.