On Thursday, President Donald Trump threw a party in the Rose Garden—to formally announce his defeat at the hands of liberals and a conservative Supreme Court justice he so despises.
“‘Are you a citizen of the United States of America?’ Oh, gee, I’m sorry, I just can't answer that question,” the president said, sardonically, at the White House on Thursday night, blasting the court’s recent decision to block his administration from adding a citizenship question to the census. Trump was joined by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in charge of the census, and by Attorney General William Barr.
Trump went off on a brief tangent, claiming that liberals are “even coming after the Pledge of Allegiance in Minnesota.”
“We are not backing down,” Trump said, before outlining how he and his team were now backing down on the census question.
He nevertheless announced a new executive order that he said would “ensure that citizenship is counted” elsewhere and instruct federal agencies to provide the Department of Commerce with records on citizens and non-citizens “immediately.”
The surrender on the census was a stunning reversal that had followed the last stunning reversal from adding a citizenship question to the census and weaponizing it for Republican gain.
Trump blamed “far-left Democrats in our country” for opposition to his failed census change. "The only people who are not proud to be [U.S.] citizens are the ones who are fighting us all the way about the word ‘citizenship,’” Trump added.
But privately, the president also blames someone else in particular for his census defeat: Chief Justice John Roberts.
In late June, the Supreme Court dealt a nearly fatal blow to the administration’s efforts to ask who is a U.S. citizen on the 2020 census. Success could have meant millions of people, mostly Hispanic, would be undercounted with drastic implications for the political power of states with large Hispanic populations, such as New York and California, where Democrats are dominant.
Roberts, writing for the court, said that though a citizenship question is constitutional, Ross and the Department of Commerce had misrepresented their rationale for the addition. The case was sent back down to lower courts for more consideration, just as time was running out to print census forms. (The Justice Department told courts it wouldn’t add the question—until a Trump tweet saying otherwise sent heads spinning.)
To the president, this was another unforgivable betrayal of him and the rest of the right by Roberts, a conservative who was nominated by President George W. Bush. It was on par with Roberts’ past decision to join the liberal justices and save Obamacare in 2012.
In the days immediately following the census decision, Trump repeatedly mocked Roberts, saying it was all Roberts’s “fault,” and inveighing against the chief justice’s integrity and intelligence, according to two people who heard Trump make these comments in the White House. One of these sources recalled Trump enthusiastically citing a recent Lou Dobbs episode on Fox Business, in which the host and Trump confidant verbally assailed Roberts for multiple segments as an ideological traitor and a judicial activist.
Trump’s anger towards Roberts, as well as his determination to add the question and show up the liberals, seemed to energize him to directly challenge the Supreme Court in his quest to change the census. By Thursday, it seemed plausible that the president would issue a likely doomed executive order putting the citizenship question on forms. Last week, he ordered officials to give him legal options for an order, even though the Justice Department had previously announced it would ditch the effort. By Thursday morning, senior officials were telling reporters to expect Trump’s order that would defy the highest court in the land.
Then suddenly, the president blinked.