Donald Trump is in a unique position, and quite a precarious one. A lot can change between now and the 2020 election, but as of today he’s not within a country mile of being in contention to win reelection – and if he loses, he’ll promptly be criminally charged and arrested by the State of New York. Obviously he has to do something try to change his fate. Yet he’s putting down the last of his chips on a 2020 census matter that won’t impact his reelection odds one bit. So what’s he doing?
If Donald Trump somehow manages to get his way with the 2020 census, it’ll result in minorities being under-counted, thus giving greater representation to white conservative voters, and thus greater representation to the Republican Party in the House of Representatives – but not until at least 2022. Not only would this have no effect on Trump’s own chances in 2020, it would have no effect on the GOP’s chance of retaking the House in 2020. At most, this could potentially give Trump an advantage in Congress for the final two years of his eight year presidency – but by then a president’s ability to legislate is usually over anyway.
So why does Trump care so much about this issue? There are a couple things at play here. It’s not clear that Trump even understands what he’s fighting for. This is a guy who never does his homework on these kinds of matters, and could be under the mistaken impression that winning the 2020 census fight might help his odds in the 2020 election. This could also just be one of Trump’s impulsive tantrums, which he sometimes throws when he fails to get his way on something, even if it’s not all that important to him to begin with. But there’s also another explanation.
If Donald Trump does issue an Executive Order to include the citizenship question in the 2020 census, he’ll be doing so in direct defiance of the Supreme Court’s very recent ruling. He’ll be daring the Supreme Court to immediately invalidate his Executive Order. If the Court does it, and Trump moves forward with the census question anyway, the Supreme Court will have to decide whether to take some kind of immediate enforcement action to all but physically stop Trump and his Commerce Department from sending out census forms with the question on them. If the Supreme Court didn’t make a move like this, it could be ceding its own oversight over the Executive Branch, and after that, Trump could issue any illegal Executive Order he wanted.
So yeah, it could be that Donald Trump is intentionally betting what’s left of his presidency on this census question, in the hope of parlaying it into newfound power, where he could perhaps get away with pardoning himself and other unconstitutional moves aimed at fending off his inevitable prison sentence. Or it could be that Trump is betting all his chips on the census issue because he’s too clueless to understand that it doesn’t actually help his odds of winning in 2020.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report