It’s logical paradoxes all the way down:
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration, effectively concluding that it lied about the reasons it wanted to ask the citizenship question. Government lawyers then told the plaintiffs and Hazel that they were dropping the matter, and that the census would be printed without the question. But after President Donald Trump angrily tweeted that he was still pursuing the matter, government lawyers were forced to admit to Hazel that they no longer knew what was happening. Hazel demanded an answer by today, hence the new filing.
In the real world, the fact that the executive branch apparently plans to offer some new, unspecified rationale for a decision it has already made is proof it has been lying about the motives all along—to Congress, to the American people, and to multiple federal judges. In the legal world, however, this maneuver might yet succeed.
To get the citizenship question on the census, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross put the Justice Department up to claiming it needed citizenship data to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Ross claimed that the Justice Department came to him with this request, but documents have turned up since then that show he solicited it.
Nonetheless, the government told Congress and courts, in sworn filings, that the question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, the pretext was in shreds, and Chief Justice John Roberts led a 5–4 majority that rejected the administration’s attempt to include the question. But the decision left the door open for the government to come back with the “real” rationale and try again. That’s what the government is doing now.
Meanwhile, Trump is happily telling reporters that his administration was lying before, and that one real reason for the question is to generate new data to redraw congressional districts.
“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 or not citizens?” he said today. “You need it for many reasons.”
As it stands, congressional districts are allotted based on the total population of states. The Trump administration seems to want to base the allotment on the citizen population instead, which would likely enhance the power of Republican-leaning states at the expense of Democratic ones heavy with noncitizens. The Census Bureau itself concluded that the question would lead to a significant undercount of the United States population.
The plaintiffs argued that one motive for the question was to allow for redistricting on the basis of the citizen voting-age population. The president’s solicitor general explicitly denied that, calling it a “conspiracy theory … nonsensical even on its own terms.” Now Trump is baldly saying it was true.
Trump’s accidental moment of honesty is bad news for Wilbur Ross, whom Trump is effectively hanging out to dry as a perjurer. It’s bad news for the solicitor general and the Justice Department lawyers, who have to go before federal judges and admit that their prior claims were nonsense. It would be bad news for the credibility of the Trump administration, were there still any objective debate about its credibility, which there is not, or if the president cared about being shown as a liar, which he does not.
To paraphrase Thurman Arnold, if you can ask a liar who you just lied to you about his motives to come up with another lie about those motives that’s more “true” than his first lie, you have what is known as a legal mind.
Or you’re John Roberts, just calling balls and strikes.