Then Trump went on Twitter and shattered that impression:
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.)
Gardner, feeling the heat, immediately adopted the storied attorney’s technique known as CYA. “I want to back up just a step and say that I’ve been with the United States Department of Justice for 16 years, through
multiple administrations, and I’ve always endeavored to be as
candid as possible with the court,” he said, adding that what he had said on Tuesday was his “best understanding” of the state of affairs, and noted that Ross had said the same. He said Trump’s tweet was his first intimation of any change: “I do not have a deeper understanding of what that means at this juncture other than what the president has tweeted.” Gardner said he had confirmed that the Census Bureau was in fact still printing the questionnaire without the citizenship question.
But then Joseph Hunt, the assistant attorney general for DOJ’s civil division, jumped in with a contradictory message: “We at the Department of Justice have been instructed to examine whether there is a path forward, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision, that would allow us to include the citizenship question on the census. We think there may be a legally available path under the Supreme Court’s decision. We’re examining that, looking at near-term options to see whether that’s viable and possible.”
Here was Trump’s tweet, vividly illustrated. Any litigation involving the federal government is based on the notion that the executive branch represents the presidency. But Trump refuses to coordinate his messages with anyone else, meaning the system breaks down. Only Trump speaks for Trump; neither his Cabinet officials nor his attorneys can reliably say what he intends to do.
Hazel basically told the government lawyers that while he might not doubt their personal honesty, he didn’t have any reason to trust their statements, either:
If you were Facebook and an attorney for Facebook told me one thing, and then I read a press release from Mark Zuckerberg telling me something else, I would be demanding that Mark Zuckerberg appear in court with you the next time, because I would be saying I don’t think you speak for your client anymore.
If Ross were still capable of shame—which he doesn’t appear to be—all of this would be humiliating for him, though Trump has repeatedly undercut Cabinet officials and other appointees by publicly contradicting them before. It must be even more horrifying for career officials like Gardner, who have to work with federal judges regularly and value their reputations.