Today’s late-afternoon Rose Garden press conference on the Census citizenship question was a classic Donald Trump performance. Having confused everyone about his administration’s response to a Supreme Court decision blocking the inclusion of a citizenship question on 2020 Census questionnaires, the president caved completely but covered his retreat in a cloud of blustery attacks on his many enemies, alongside threats to get at the ultimate Republican goal of denying legislative representation of noncitizens and perhaps immigrants generally via other means.
The New York Times boiled off the rhetorical chaff and explained where Trump landed:
Mr. Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was giving up on the census question two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked the Trump administration over its effort to modify the census. Just last week, Mr. Trump insisted that he “must” pursue that goal.
He instead said he was issuing an executive order instructing federal departments and agencies to provide the Census Bureau with citizenship data immediately …
The new approach, which appears to have been available to the Trump administration all along, could provide a clearer picture of how many people living in the United States are citizens without distorting census participation.
But such an estimate would not chill participation in the Census count the way the Census Bureau itself observed a citizenship question would do, creating an undercount of an estimated 6.5 million people, with a large impact on Census-based federal funding formulas and congressional redistricting.
Both Trump and Attorney General William Barr, who followed his boss to the podium (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose clumsy and mendacious handling of the citizenship question had a lot to do with the current crisis, stood by silently) were adamant that the Supreme Court had not deemed the citizenship question illegal. Trump thundered against “extremely unfair” federal district court judges working hand in glove with a “broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen.” Barr more diplomatically suggested that SCOTUS had created a “logistical,” not a legal, bar to the administration having its way. But with Census forms already being printed without the citizenship question, and no feasible way to add the question later, surrender was inevitable.
Still, the separate data on citizens and noncitizens that Trump’s executive order called for could have sinister purposes, as both the president and his attorney general hinted at in the presser, as voting-rights expert Ari Berman explains:
Trump ordered the Census Bureau to gather existing data on citizenship from administrative records, and ordered other federal agencies to turn over their citizenship data to the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. The administration could then use this information to draw districts based on citizenship rather than total population during the next redistricting cycle in 2021 — something some Republicans have been advocating. That would shift political power to whiter and more Republican areas with fewer immigrants, a move that longtime GOP redistricting strategist Tom Hofeller said in 2015 would be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”
And even if federal courts block that approach with respect to congressional redistricting, the new data, as Trump clearly indicated, might help states exclude noncitizens from representation in state legislatures:
Some states may want to draw state legislative districts based on the voting-eligible population.
Again, Barr was slightly more circumspect:
There is a current dispute over whether illegal aliens can be included for apportionment purposes. Depending on the resolution of that dispute, this data may be relevant to those considerations.
In the end, the administration made the best of the bad situation it created. Even though Trump made a hash of its position in the wake of the SCOTUS decision, all the yelling and screaming signaled to his nativist base that he is determined to make immigration status central to every decision in sight — and to Republican pols that he is firmly committed to their crusade to ensure that democracy doesn’t get in the way of white-voter hegemony. It’s a fight that is far from over.