President Donald Trump, growing frustrated at his administration’s handling of a citizenship question on the census, is encouraging his lawyers and aides to find a way to include the disputed item before an afternoon court deadline — even exploring whether to issue an executive order on the issue.
“It’s one of the ways — we have four or five ways we can do it,” Trump told reporters Friday on the White House lawn. “It’s one of the ways that we’re thinking about doing it very seriously.”
Administration officials have privately cast skepticism on the feasibility of unilateral executive action, leaving the route forward unclear. They point to the fact that an executive order or another kind of directive with an alternative rationale would be subject to court injunctions over the next several weeks that could further complicate and an already tenuous timeline.
The White House said late Thursday that the President was “looking at every option.”
Trump threw the situation into disorder earlier this week when he tweeted he wouldn’t give up the battle even after his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the census forms would be printed without the question — a move the President signed off on earlier in the week. The internal dispute has led the President to privately air frustrations at his 81-year-old commerce secretary.
Trump has been frustrated at Ross’s handling of the census issue, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, believing he folded too easily after the Supreme Court ruled on the matter this week.
His frustrations with his commerce secretary started before the high court decision, believing the issue has been mishandled from the start. But in recent days he’s told allies that Ross let him down.
At this point it does not appear that Ross will be dismissed, the two people said. But in speaking with advisers, Trump has bemoaned the Commerce Department and the Justice Department for “giving up,” according to the people.
He has said that all of his options weren’t explored before the announcement earlier this week that the printing would go forward.
A legal adviser who has been involved with the discussions over the last several days with Trump administration officials on the citizenship question says that when the Department of Justice went forward earlier in the week to say that a citizenship question would not be added to the census, the Department got “ahead of itself.” The source acknowledges that the White House was informed in some form of what DOJ lawyers would argue, but said that there was not “adequate communication.”
The President remains in contact with outside advisers and is frustrated that the DOJ seemed to be throwing in the towel and has complained that Chief Justice John Roberts should be responsible for the failure to get the question on the census, not the President, according to the source. A continued legal effort, the source contended, might “force” Roberts to make a decision.
Trump has aired frustrations at Ross previously. Early in the administration, Trump kept berating him for his handling of China trade talks. He also complained that he fell asleep in meetings. But he’s remained on good personal terms with his longtime friend.
Trump has said publicly that asking census-takers their citizenship status should be a no-brainer. But opponents say it could deter minorities and immigrants, even those in the United States legally, from taking the survey. That, in turn, could skew electoral maps in favor of Republicans and reduce government assistance programs for some communities.
Administration lawyers were hurrying Friday to prepare for an afternoon deadline to explain how they will proceed in adding the disputed question about citizenship to the 2020 census.
Trump is facing “limited options,” according to a person familiar with the matter, that include a potential executive order or adding the question as a supplement with the upcoming census forms, which are already being printed.
Trump tweeted early Thursday that officials were working on the Independence Day holiday to resolve the issue ahead of a 2 p.m. ET Friday court deadline to explain what the government plans to do.
“Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice are working very hard on this, even on the 4th of July!” the President wrote, before departing the White House for his Virginia golf club.
Trump’s seemingly out-of-the-blue tweet on Wednesday reversing the administration’s stance came as a surprise to the government lawyers tasked with arguing the case.
There was initially consensus among the White House and other top administration officials over the position the Justice Department would take — that it would go ahead with preparing the census without a line asking “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
But Trump changed his mind after a hearing Tuesday, according to a source familiar with discussions. Top Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr, became aware of the pivot before Trump tweeted about it, but lower level attorneys at the Justice Department, including the lawyers who were due in front of a federal judge in Maryland on Wednesday, were not aware of the shift.
The legal adviser who has been involved with the discussions with the Trump administration officials told CNN the President is committed to showing leadership on the issue, adding “The President has made clear he wants to fight.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.