IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why Trump's census surrender is such a 'humiliating defeat'

It was amusing to see Trump insist he and his team were "not backing down" while he was obviously backing down.
Image: Donald Trump, William Barr, Wilbur Ross
President Donald Trump, joined by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, left, and Attorney General William Barr, speaks during an event about the census in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 11, 2019.

During yesterday's White House event in the Rose Garden, Attorney General Bill Barr began his brief remarks by congratulating Donald Trump on his new executive order on the census. It was an odd thing to hear: presidents aren't usually congratulated after retreating in the face of failure.

President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is backing off his effort to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census and is instead issuing an executive order directing departments and agencies to better share data related to the number of citizens and noncitizens in the country.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, who argued the U.S. Supreme Court case in this fight, said in a statement late yesterday, "Trump's attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper.... Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration."

That assessment is plainly true. Team Trump spent months trying to rig the 2020 census in such a way as to undermine Latino communities, and in the process, administration officials -- including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross -- were caught lying about the purpose of the scheme.

Their rampant incompetence contributed to Trump's legal defeat, though the president went out of his way to make matters considerably worse. After losing at the high court, the administration surrendered, only to un-surrender soon after when Trump reacted badly to unfavorable press coverage of his defeat.

The White House spent several days scrambling, raising the prospect of the president possibly defying a Supreme Court ruling, only to have Trump surrender again yesterday afternoon.

The Republican specifically declared yesterday afternoon that he and his team were "not backing down," which was amusing, because the president was obviously backing down.

For the right, there's probably a degree of frustration over the Trump administration's rampant incompetence. After all, if Wilbur Ross hadn't been caught lying about the purpose of the scheme, and if the White House could've managed to keep its story straight, this plan probably would've worked.

Indeed, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts effectively said as much in his ruling, explaining that Team Trump failed, not because a citizenship question was legally impermissible, but because the administration didn't have a coherent, justifiable reason for adding the question to the census.

As Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman explained very well yesterday, "In a presidency full of pratfalls and screw-ups, there have been few efforts characterized by quite the combination of boundless bad faith, obvious dishonesty and sheer incompetence as this one."

Looking ahead, there are a couple angles to keep in mind. The first is the utility of the administration's new plan, which at this point, appears ... murky. As the ACLU's Daniel Ho told Rachel on the show last night, the president's new executive order asks federal agencies to maintain the status quo. In effect, Trump signed a document telling the executive branch, "Keep doing what you've been doing, but do it better."

This is, incidentally, the face-saving approach Census Bureau officials recommended a year ago, but which the president rejected -- until yesterday.

The second angle is the possibility that considerable damage has already been done. As Loyola Law School's Jessica Levinson explained in a piece for NBC News, many in the targeted communities are likely aware of the controversy, and they may now be afraid to participate in the census.

"[I]f the intent was to stop immigrants from filling out the census, it's already working," Levinson explained. "The longer the words 'citizenship' and 'census' appear in the news, and the longer it looks like there is even the slimmest of chances that the census will include the question, the better it is for Trump and Republicans."