The Trump White House produces no shortage of eye-catching, headline-grabbing acts of malfeasance. Brazenly blatant acts of corruption, titillating tell-alls from the president’s porn-star paramours, and proto-authoritarian Twitter tantrums are constantly competing for limited headline space.
And yet, this administration is arguably most dangerous when it’s at its most boring. In the dull, gray innards of the federal bureaucracies, Donald Trump’s minions are making profoundly consequential (and, in many cases, deeply corrupt) decisions that will never make the “A block” of a single cable news show.
And no set of decisions has broader potential implications for our democracy than those the Commerce Department has made regarding the 2020 census.
The U.S. government’s decennial attempt to count every human being within its borders might seem like one of Uncle Sam’s most anodyne activities. But when those overseeing the count belong to a political movement that explicitly regards demographic change as its enemy — and disenfranchising Democratic constituencies as fair game — the Census can begin to resemble an ominous enterprise. Census data shapes the contours of political districts, and determines each state’s clout in the Electoral College. It dictates what proportion of federal funding for schools, roads, and libraries each state is entitled to. Thus, if a Republican administration found a facially neutral way of systematically undercounting residents in Democratic-leaning areas, it could inflate red America’s (already disproportionate) influence over our political system.
And the Trump administration appeared to be doing just that last March, when it decided to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 census. By that point, the White House had already (unsuccessfully) attempted to put a leading proponent of GOP gerrymandering (who had no experience managing a large bureaucracy) in charge of overseeing the Census, while refusing to hire noncitizen Census-takers for the purpose of reaching immigrant communities. Meanwhile, Census Bureau researchers had already warned that test surveys were prompting “unprecedented” levels of concern from immigrants, who feared that providing the government with information about themselves would result in their deportation. Census data cannot be legally used for immigration enforcement. But, for understandable reasons, undocumented immigrants weren’t eager to bet their capacity to live in the United States on the Trump administration’s commitment to the letter of the law.
Thus, the Commerce Department’s decision to ask Census respondents about their citizenship status, for the first time since 1950, looked like a deliberate attempt to exacerbate this problem. And if the citizenship question did, in fact, depress undocumented immigrants’ participation in the Census — and thereby, lead the federal government to systematically undercount them — there would be obvious benefits to the GOP: Most undocumented immigrants live in Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas, so the fewer of them the government counts, the greater the share of federal money and political influence that rural, Republican-leaning areas will receive.
And the GOP had another, equally controversial incentive for surveying the American public about their citizenship. The judiciary has long insisted that U.S. House districts must be drawn on the basis of total population — not total voters — so that children, prisoners, undocumented immigrants, and others who lack access to the ballot are provided with indirect representation. But some conservative groups have mulled drawing state and local districts on the basis of eligible voters (ostensibly, so as to minimize the influence that godless city slickers wield over state capitols). In 2016, the Supreme Court indicated that it might approve of such a practice. But without Census data on citizens and noncitizens, red states would have no means of giving voters-only districting a try.
Still, the Trump administration insisted that its decision to alter the Census was rooted in only the purest of motives — specifically, a heartfelt desire to protect the voting rights of African-Americans. In congressional testimony, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross explained that his bureau only began considering the citizenship question after the Department of Justice indicated that it needed such information to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Of course, the idea that Jeff Sessions was desperate for new tools he could use in lawsuits against southern states with racially discriminatory political practices never passed the smell test. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of American politics knew that Ross was “trolling the libs.” Still, it wasn’t clear whether the administration’s bad faith could be proven. And this was an important distinction — because if advocates for immigrant communities could establish, through documentary evidence, that the Trump administration had a discriminatory intent when it added the citizenship question to the Census, they just might be able to get a court to strike it down.
And on Monday, New York attorney general Barbara Underwood revealed what appears to be a smoking gun. As part of her lawsuit challenging the Census question, Underwood publicly filed a newly unredacted internal Commerce Department memo, which reveals that the Justice Department (DOJ) did not initiate the request for the citizenship question — but rather, resisted Commerce’s initial attempts to extract such a request from it.
Now, the DOJ did issue a formal request for a question about citizenship status in December of 2017 — but only after the Commerce Department had spent months lobbying for such a request. As NPR reports:
[M]emos and emails released previously as part of the lawsuits over the question already have contradicted Ross’ testimony. They make clear that Ross was eager to add the question shortly after he was confirmed as commerce secretary in February 2017 … Earl Comstock — a key Commerce Department official on census-related issues — first approached Justice Department officials in May 2017. Comstock eventually discussed the issue with James McHenry, a Justice Department official working on immigration issues who now oversees the immigration courts as the head of the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
“Justice staff did not want to raise the question given the difficulties Justice was encountering in the press at the time (the whole Comey matter),” Comstock wrote to Ross in a newly unredacted portion of the memo, which is dated Sept. 8, 2017.
With the DOJ looking to avoid controversy amid the fallout from Trump’s firing of James Comey, the Commerce Department began searching for other agencies that might force it to ask U.S. residents about their citizenship. The memo reveals that Comstock sought a request from the Department of Homeland Security, only to have DHS refer him back to the DOJ. Comstock then directed an attorney at the Commerce Department “to look into the legal issues and how Commerce could add the question to the Census itself,” according to a previously redacted portion of the memo.
All of which is to say: On Monday, the state of New York ostensibly revealed that the Commerce Secretary lied to Congress about his rationale for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census — a development that lends credence to the claim that the Trump administration is deliberately trying to engineer an inaccurate count of the U.S. population in hopes of consolidating their party’s grip on power through anti-democratic means.
And this wasn’t enough to qualify as headline news.