By Paul Waldman
If nothing else, you have to give the Trump administration and the Republican Party credit for thoroughness in their quest to subvert fundamental democratic institutions and ideals. If there’s a foundation stone of our system that they haven’t gotten around to at least attempting to undermine, just give them some time.
That effort is what requires us to talk about the census, which in a different time one might expect not to be manipulated for partisan advantage. But that’s exactly what the administration is trying to do. Not only that, it has been lying about what it’s up to — not just to the public, but under oath.
New information has emerged that deepens what can only be called a scandal. But first, some background.
As you may have heard, the administration decided soon after taking office that it wanted to add a question to the 2020 Census about whether the person filling out the form or those in their household are U.S. citizens — a question that has not appeared on the decennial census for 70 years. As anyone who has conducted interviews for the census will tell you, a great challenge in this monumental effort is getting everyone to answer so as to get a complete count. It is particularly difficult in communities of immigrants because, even when they are here legally, they have a natural suspicion of government representatives knocking on their doors.
Add in the Trump administration’s open hostility toward immigrants and increasingly aggressive enforcement tactics, and that suspicion will inevitably be increased. If, on top of that, you start quizzing people about their citizenship status, you are virtually guaranteed to undercount immigrants. When that happens, it means that areas, cities, congressional districts, and states with large numbers of immigrants will appear smaller than they are, leading to diversion of resources, representation and political power.
Which is precisely the point. But if you’re the Trump administration, you can’t just come out and say that you want to add a citizenship question in order to undercount immigrants to give Republicans a political advantage. So what did it do?
The story the administration came up with was that the citizenship question is necessary in order to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act. Which was always a little strange, given that Republicans have virtually no interest in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, not to mention the fact that adding a citizenship question isn’t going to help them do so. But lacking any less ridiculous justification, that’s what they settled on.
How can I confidently say this was bogus from the start? Because we have documentary evidence showing the administration constructing the lie.
The census is housed within the Commerce Department, under Secretary Wilbur Ross. As part of spreading the lie about the Voting Rights Act, Ross testified before Congress that adding the citizenship question wasn’t even his department’s idea; it supposedly happened because the Justice Department requested it. When he was asked about it under oath in March, Ross said, “The Department of Justice, as you know, initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.”
This was a lie, one of two he told under oath that may well constitute perjury. In fact, the Justice Department did not initiate the request for the citizenship question. What actually happened was that the Commerce Department asked the Justice Department to ask the Commerce Department to ask for the citizenship question, to create what was in effect a false paper trail to cover up what it was actually doing.
In emails obtained in a lawsuit challenging the plan to add a citizenship question, Ross wrote to one of his aides: “I am mystified why nothing [has] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?” The aide responded: “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question.”
There is a bunch of back-and-forth within the documents that shows there was some reluctance at the Justice Department to participate in this ruse until, eventually, a Trump appointee writes a letter in December 2017 “requesting” the insertion of a citizenship question. But there is no doubt that it was the Commerce Department that got things in motion. Ross lied under oath when he claimed that Justice “initiated the request.”
Now, that cycle is repeating itself with another lie Ross told Congress:
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recalled talking with former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions about adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, according to a document filed Thursday by the Justice Department, though he testified to Congress that he had not done so.
The document, part of a multistate lawsuit against the Trump administration over the question, said Ross recalls Bannon calling him in the spring of 2017 to ask whether Ross would speak to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach about ideas for a possible citizenship question on the census.
The document appears to contradict Ross’s testimony to Congress this year. When asked at a hearing on March 20 by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y) whether the president or anyone in the White House had discussed the citizenship question with him, Ross said, “I am not aware of any such.”
Now he recalls! He talked to Bannon, at the time the president’s chief political strategist, who asked Ross to speak to anti-immigrant vote suppressor extraordinaire Kris Kobach about the citizenship question. I guess they were all concerned about proper enforcement of the Voting Right Act.
Now let’s take a moment for some straight talk. The idea that the Trump administration wants to add a citizenship question to the census solely to aid in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is one of a particular genre of Republican lie — the kind everyone knows is a lie every time it’s uttered, but somehow people convince themselves to take seriously. Like “we only imposed these vote suppression measures because we’re deeply concerned about voter fraud,” or “we only imposed these onerous regulations on abortion clinics because we’re deeply concerned about women’s health.” That they can say those things without dissolving into giggles is a testament to their steely self-control, yet we’re all supposed to pretend they are being sincere.
Lying to the public is one thing, however, while lying to Congress is a criminal act. And in Wilbur Ross’ case, he didn’t just lie about the administration’s intentions, he lied about specific facts.
We all know what’s actually going on. Republicans want the census to undercount immigrants;BannonandKobach,twoofthemostfiercelyanti-immigrantfiguresinTrump’s orbit,weren’tworkingwithRossonthisbecausetheywantedtoensurethatthecensusisas accurate as possible. Their involvement makes clear what the real agenda likely was: depriving immigrant communities of representation and further rigging the system in favor of Republicans.The question now is whether they’ll get away with it.