For months, experts warned Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that asking about citizenship on the 2020 Census would result in an undercount of minorities, particularly Latinos.
Ross pushed ahead anyway. He had made up his mind long before consulting them, a decision that could have potentially “massive and lasting consequences.” Then he created a “sham” account of a deliberative process that he thought would pass muster in the courts to “obtain cover for a decision” he and his political aides had “already made.”
That’s the conclusion of a new 277-page opinion by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman.
Conservatives will undoubtedly point out that Judge Furman is an Obama appointee and therefore not to be trusted. I will point out that he was also a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, the same district specializes in taking down organized crime syndicates, white-collar criminals, and sentenced Trump consigliere Michael Cohen last year.
After he reviewed thousands of internal Commerce and Justice Department documents, trial testimony, and depositions, Furman concluded that Ross and his lackeys constructed a “misleading if not false” account of their activities related to 2020 Census for public and Congressional consumption.
Shortly after assuming office in February 2017, Ross asked his deputy chief of staff, Earl Comstock, why there was no citizenship question on the census. Comstock said he would check. He responded in an email with a Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Pitfalls of Counting Illegal Immigrants.”
Soon after, Wilbur heard from, among others, White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Kris Kobach, then-Kansas secretary of state appointed by President Trump to investigate voter fraud. They wanted him to add a question.
By summer, Comstock had launched an effort to persuade the Justice Department to issue a letter asking that the citizenship question be included. Officials there gave him the runaround. “Secretary Ross was plainly out of patience,” Furman wrote, and “decided to take matters into his own hands” by personally contacting then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
After that outreach, a Justice official told Ross’s aides that “it sounds like we can do whatever you all need us to do.” What they needed — and ultimately got — was a letter saying that the Justice Department could use the results of the citizenship for voting rights purposes, In fact, Assistant Attorney General John Gore testified during the trial that he did not know whether citizenship data obtained through the census would be “any more precise than” the citizenship information the Census Bureau was already collecting via its American Community Survey. According to trial testimony, there is no evidence anyone asked Justice Department lawyers who would know, in the Civil Rights Division.
So Ross did not act “solely” at the request of the Justice Department. The Justice Department acted at his request.
All of this is to say that Wilbur Ross didn’t just ask the Justice Department if it agreed to add a citizen question to the Census; rather, he had been pressing for the inclusion such a question since taking office. Why? Because he, Steve Bannon, and Kris Kobach were and continue to be terrified that unwashed black and brown people will engage in the American democratic process and erode the privileges afforded to white folks. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau “repeatedly and consistently” recommended against adding the citizenship test because it would undeniably reduce response rates—which was exactly Ross, Bannon, and Kobach’s intention.
On a final note, it isn’t immediately clear why Wilbur Ross wanted to solicit the Justice Department support for a citizenship question in the first place. But, Furman’s decision offers an easy explanation. The Judge’s examination found that Ross lacked support within the Commerce Department and Census Bureau for a citizen question, so he began looking for outside “experts” to support his position. He tried reaching out to the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think-tank, but they basically said his position was stupid and no one at AEI would want to be associated with such a proposal.
When it comes to comfort and salvation, you’ll always have a friend in Jesus. When it comes to disenfranchising and marginalizing nonwhite people, you’ll always have a friend in Jeff Sessions. That’s basically why Ross approached the Justice Department—an organization with almost nothing to do with the US Census.
Stealing a decade’s worth of future elections by corrupting the Census process was always going to be a heavy lift, even for the King of Bankruptcy. Thank God Trump stacked his administration with raving bigots so racists like Sessions and Ross would never have to feel alone in their endeavors.