Opinion | Mike Littwin: Trump lawyers still pushing citizenship question, and they still can’t say why

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced
Mike Littwin
The Colorado Independent

When the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration’s explanation for why it wanted to put a citizenship question on the U.S. Census form was “contrived” — meaning, you know, a lie — a better man (OK, a normal person) would have thrown in the towel, just be happy that no one had yet been charged with perjury in the matter, and decided to fight another day. 

But Donald Trump is not that man. Sure, the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice had already conceded defeat on the issue — a defeat that Trump called “fake news,” thereby admitting what we all know, that when he says “fake news,” he means news he doesn’t like.

He was furious that Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross had given in so easily and, after talking to his, um, advisers, Trump decided to push on.

You see, Trump thought he had a better idea. If the Supreme Court wouldn’t accept his administration’s lie — that the reason for the question was that it would help with enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a lie which absolutely no one could believe — he’d just think of another lie.

I mean, who’s better at lying than Donald Trump? No one, of course.

But the problem is that we’re not talking about some Trump rally, where the true believers accept whatever words tumble out of his mouth, or a phoned-in visit with the sycophants at Fox & Friends. This would be in a courtroom, where truth occasionally still holds sway. In the case of the citizenship question, Chief Justice John Roberts, one of the five GOP-appointed justices on the Supreme Court, is the one wrote the 5-4 contrivance opinion. 

The opinion did say, however, that the administration could come back with another rationale, which, if you think about it, had to be a setup. I mean, if you come back to court with a different rationale, you’re basically admitting that you lied about the first one.

So, what to do?

Trump has suggested he might just use an executive order, his favorite Obama-era tool he regularly abuses. (And, speaking of Obama, did you notice Trump blamed the teleprompter — which he often mocked Obama for using — for the fact that he told the July 4th crowd the Continental Army “took over the airports” during the Revolutionary War? I think he might be telling the truth here. Whatever the gaps in Trump’s knowledge of American history — and, as, say, Frederick Douglass would tell you, they are wide and deep — I’m pretty he knows that the revolution predated the Wright brothers.) 

Some experts believe he lacks the constitutional authority to use an executive order in this instance, but why would that stop him? One Republican congressman has publicly encouraged him to simply ignore the Supreme Court, which might bring even Nancy Pelosi around on impeachment proceedings.

In a Friday meeting with the press, Trump apparently told the truth again, offering some insight as to why he does it so infrequently.

When Trump was asked why he was so insistent in pursuing the citizenship question, he offered up various possibilities, saying, “Number one, you need it for Congress — you need it for Congress for districting. You need it for appropriations — where are the funds going? How many people are there? Are they citizens? Are they not citizens? You need it for many reasons.” 

Oops. Redistricting? Number one? That’s what the question’s opponents say it’s about. The redistricting rationale is exactly the wrong one for Trump to reveal, and for several reasons. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake has a pretty good take on it, which has to do, of course, with electing Republicans. And if you want to go further in the weeds, Blake says to go here. You might also note that when listing the reasons for pursuing the question, Trump, to no one’s surprise, never mentioned the Voting Rights Act.

One reason that Roberts had to rule against the contrivance was that after the case was heard by the court, new evidence emerged that basically proved the rationale was a lie. It wasn’t that everyone didn’t already know it. But this was the real deal, written evidence by the the late GOP redistricting guru, Thomas Hofeller, found on hard drives by his estranged daughter after his death in August. She shared the information with the group Common Cause.

According to The Washington Post: Lawyers arguing against the citizenship question sent to U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman a letter saying that Hofeller “played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census in order to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.’ ”

Even the Census Bureau has conceded that the question would cause some undocumented Hispanics to avoid being counted for fear of being deported. These census numbers — which count citizens and non-citizens alike — are used for a wide variety of purposes, including how to distribute $880 billion in federal funds and how to calculate the number of congressional districts each state receives.

The Trump administration was given a Friday deadline by U.S. District Court Judge George Hazel to say whether it still plans to include the citizenship question on census forms. Hazel is overseeing a Maryland case to determine whether the question was discriminatory in that it could limit the number of minorities counted in the census.

The lawyers told the judge that the administration still hopes to use the question, but they couldn’t yet give a reason why. In other words, they’re still trying to come up with a rationale for a plan that couldn’t possibly have a good — or lawful — one that in any way resembles the truth.

Mike Littwin writes the biweekly column “Fair and Unbalanced” for The Colorado Independent. He previously worked at The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun. Contact him at

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