George Boardman: Trump can’t handle the truth when it comes to citizenship question
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The Trump administration faced an insurmountable obstacle in getting Supreme Court approval to put a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census: It had to tell the truth.
Federal statutes require that agencies act with candor and a reasonable basis in making policy, and government lawyers couldn’t convince the court that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wanted a citizenship question on the census forms to help protect minority-voting rights.
“If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in voting with the majority to reject the administration’s attempt to get the question on the census.
The evidence that has emerged on Ross’ decision-making process “tells a story that does not match the explanation the secretary gave,” Roberts wrote. That reason “seems to have been contrived,” he added.
That’s a polite way of saying Ross lied.
Upon taking office, Ross began taking steps to add the question, including, according to court records, discussing it with Trump associates known for hard-line positions on immigration, including then Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former White House strategist Steve Bannon.
An aide to Ross spent several months asking various agencies to request a citizenship question, coming up empty handed until the Justice Department was persuaded to claim it needed the citizenship data for voting rights enforcement. “Even then, the record suggests the DOJ’s interest was directed more to helping the Commerce Department than to securing the data,” Roberts wrote.
Then in the kind of move that caused the ambassador from England to suggest the administration is incompetent and inept, Trump said after the court’s decision he would seek new justification for the question, then proposed a delay in the census, then told courts it was dropping the query, then asserted it was redoubling efforts to add it.
When a circuit court judge asked Justice Department attorney Joshua Gardner to explain what was going on, he said:
“What I told the court yesterday was absolutely my best understanding of the state of affairs and, apparently, also the Commerce Department’s state of affairs. The tweet this morning was the first I heard of the president’s position on this issue, just like plaintiff and your honor. I’m doing my absolute best to figure out what is going on.”
The citizenship question hasn’t been asked on the main census form since 1950, but the Census Bureau collects citizenship data through its American Community Survey. Data provided by the 3.5 million households surveyed annually is used by federal, state and local policy makers.
So why the sudden interest in putting a citizenship question on the main census? The unearthed computer files of a deceased Republican Party gerrymandering guru suggests the question “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” when it comes to redistricting and, thus, maintaining power.
Thomas Hofeller, described by some as the Michaelangelo of gerrymandering, died last summer at the age of 75. He worked for the Republican National Committee for several years, traveling the country advising Republican legislators on how to draw redistricting lines that favor the GOP. One study suggests that thanks to gerrymandering, Republicans won 14 more House seat than they should have in the 2018 elections.
Hofeller’s last major project was the gerrymandering of North Carolina to favor the GOP in an evenly divided state. (As an aside, the files suggest Republican officials defending the 2017 redistricting lied in court about when the redistricting maps were drawn up and whether racial data influenced the process. A trial is currently underway in the state.)
His estranged daughter got possession of Hofeller’s computer files and shared the contents with Common Cause and other groups fighting inclusion of the citizenship question, over the strenuous objections of Republican Party attorneys.
A search of the files unearthed a 2015 Hofeller study outlining how census responses to a citizenship question could be used to draw political maps that would diminish the voting power of Latinos.
A key portion of a 2015 memo on the subject ended up in the Commerce Department’s justification for adding the citizenship question to the census, and emails reveal Hofeller was discussing inclusion of the question as early as 2010 with Christa Jones, a long-time Census Bureau employee who is now chief of staff to the bureau’s deputy director.
All of this is bound up in politics. As America’s non-white population grows in size and influence, the Republican Party has become a haven for whites who fear what this change may portend for them and their children. As much as party leaders want to pretend this is not the case, Donald Trump has concluded that playing the race card solidifies his support.
Trump played the card most recently when he claimed four minority Democrats in the House — three of whom were born in the U.S. — came from corrupt and broken countries and should “go back” to what he called the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
“Go back” is a crude nativist trope immigrants have heard in America for more than two centuries. As we saw at a rally last week in North Carolina, his base loved it, chanting “send her back” when Trump criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Last year, he described some African countries sending immigrants to the U.S. as “s–t hole” countries and asserted in 2017 that “both sides” were to blame for a confrontation involving white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a candidate, he described people — mainly Hispanics — crossing the border illegally as “rapists and murderers.”
Trump also asserted a federal judge’s Hispanic heritage amounted to a conflict of interest in overseeing a fraud case against Trump University, and for several years backed the birther claims against Barack Obama.
No wonder 57 percent of Americans surveyed before his latest blow-up think Trump is a racist. Is this really the face of the Republican Party today?
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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