The word “congratulations” stood out at Donald Trump’s Rose Garden press conference yesterday. The word was uttered twice, for emphasis, by Trump’s partner in crime, Attorney General William Barr. While Trump stood there having to acknowledge the reality that the Department of Commerce must complete the 2020 census without a citizenship question, Barr was sure to insert that word into the event so that viewers who are not familiar with the facts would assume Trump had just accomplished something big.
“Congratulations” is a word said to praise another person for a recent win. In the political world, that could include an election victory, a favorable court decision, or a diplomatic breakthrough, for example. But nothing happened about the census that would give Trump any reason to claim victory. In fact, the Supreme Court put the issue to bed when it ruled in late June that the Trump administration could not force the question into the census for a “contrived” reason.
Nevertheless, Barr told Trump, “Congratulations on today’s executive order” and later repeated: “Congratulations again, Mr. President, on taking this effective measure,” as if Trump had been handed a win. The issuance of an executive order is not something for which a President can be congratulated. Although executive orders are subject to judicial review, nothing prevents a President from issuing one on any topic at any time, and so it is not a feat to do so. It may make sense for Barr to thank Trump for doing what he did, but not to congratulate him for it.
So, what’s going on here? There is no doubt that the use of this word was the product of a strategy discussion between Trump and Barr, and perhaps others, before the Rose Garden spectacle. Although he lost the Supreme Court ruling, Trump wanted to come across to viewers as the true winner. Trump surely knew that by having his Attorney General heartily congratulate him on live TV, many viewers who have not been following the story closely would not appreciate that this census battle ended in an embarrassing defeat for Trump. Instead, people would get the impression that while Trump perhaps did not get exactly what he wanted, he eked out a victory nevertheless. “Congratulations” to both Trump and Barr on yet another pathetic display of deception.