About a week ago, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) published a tweet suggesting Donald Trump should move forward with the White House's census scheme -- including the citizenship question -- despite the Supreme Court's recent ruling. The congressman's recommendation seemed bizarre for a reason: as a rule, federal lawmakers don't publicly encourage presidents to circumvent the law.
The broader problem that emerged soon after was the possibility that Trump was looking for ways to follow Roy's advice.
As of early last week, the administration had thrown in the towel. In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, federal officials, facing an inflexible deadline, announced that the White House's census scheme was dead and census forms would be printed without the controversial and legally impermissible citizenship question. The gambit, it appeared, had run its course.
And then Trump started tweeting, creating uncertainty about the administration's intentions. The Wall Street Journal spoke to one insider who said, when asked what Team Trump would do, "Nobody has any f—ing idea."
Conditions grew quite a bit messier yesterday:
[T]he Department of Justice announced Sunday that it was shifting its census effort to a new team of lawyers and indicated there would be more court filings Monday."As will be reflected in filings tomorrow in the census-related cases, the Department of Justice is shifting these matters to a new team of Civil Division lawyers going forward," said DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec. She did not say why the change was being made.
There are a variety of possible explanations for the change, but there's an especially notable one: career attorneys at the Justice Department may believe that the latest argument suffers from legal and/or ethical concerns, and they simply weren't prepared to take that case to a judge, Trump's wishes notwithstanding.
As of this morning, the Census Bureau is, in fact, printing materials without Trump's question. As far as the White House is concerned, however, there's still time to concoct a plausible rationale for adding a citizenship question: Team Trump apparently thinks it can throw together an argument, take it to court, get a green light, and then print supplemental census materials that would advance the president's political agenda.
That's not impossible, but the odds aren't in Republicans' favor. As the Washington Post noted this morning, the administration has changed its story on the census citizenship question at least 10 times in the last four months.
Why is this important? First, because it's proof that there is no good argument for the census citizenship question, so the president and his team have been reduced to flailing around in desperation.
Second, because Team Trump can't simply admit the truth: they're trying to use the census to stack the deck for racial and partisan reasons.
And third, because the evolving -- and occasionally contradictory -- rationales will make it that much more difficult for even conservative judges to sign off on the White House's scheme.
What a fiasco.