POLITICS

DOJ Lawyer Told Judge He's Doing 'Absolute Best To Figure Out' Trump Census Mess

Trump's tweet "was the first I had heard of the president’s position" on the citizenship question that was shot down by Supreme Court, said attorney.

A transcript of a court conference call about President Donald Trump’s surprise tweet concerning the census citizenship question dramatically exposed the chaos within the administration on the issue. 

Trump’s tweet Wednesday that a controversial citizenship question should remain in the census appeared to boldly rebuff a Supreme Court decision last week. It also flatly contradicted a statement by Trump’s own administration after officials said that the question would be dropped in the wake of the court defeat. Trump called his own officials’ comments “FAKE!”

A lead Justice Department attorney in the case found out for the first time that the administration was switching course on the issue when he read Trump’s tweet. Justice Department officials had warned the president that battling the decision was a dead end, but he listened instead to his right-wing supporters, The Washington Post reported.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that Trump’s apparent refusal to acknowledge the high court’s decision effectively continued to scare immigrants from filling out the census, setting them up to be underreported — which civil rights advocates had argued was the goal all along.

The Trump administration has until Friday afternoon to explain how attorneys will proceed, a frustrated Maryland U.S. District Judge George Hazel ruled Wednesday in the telephone hearing.

Hazel and the DOJ’s own attorney appeared to be equally blindsided by Trump’s tweet that the question would remain in the census. The Supreme Court rejected the question unless the administration could come up with a valid reason for it, calling the current justification “contrived.”

“I saw a tweet that got my attention,” Hazel said in the Wednesday conference call with DOJ attorneys and plaintiffs. “I don’t know how many federal judges have Twitter accounts, but I happen to be one of them, and I follow the president, and so I saw a tweet that directly contradicted the position” of the DOJ attorney that the citizenship question would be dropped.

Hazel said later in the phone call: “If you were Facebook and an attorney for Facebook told me one thing, and then I read a press release from Mark Zuckerberg telling me something else, I would be demanding that Mark Zuckerberg appear in court with you the next time because I would be saying I don’t think you speak for your client anymore.”

Apologetic DOJ attorney Joshua Gardner said he has “always endeavored to be as candid as possible” with the court during his 16 years with the Justice Department — “through several administrations.”  He assured the judge he had no idea that Trump would make such a declaration. The tweet “was the first I had heard of the president’s position on the issue,” he said. “Obviously, as you can imagine, I am doing my absolute best to figure out what’s going on.”

Gardner said that the 2020 census was continuing to be printed without the disputed citizenship question. 

Plaintiffs on the call indicated that Trump’s tweet was a bid to continue to intimidate immigrants.

“The president’s tweet has some of the same effects that the addition of the question would have,” argued Denise Hulett, a counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It leaves the immigrant communities to believe that the government is still after information that could endanger them.”

Hazel said he would “have some concern” about ordering the president to not tweet about the issue. But he did refer to “some mechanism” in the government that could be used to “counteract” the president’s misleading messages — though he admitted it’s an “odd place for the judiciary to be in.”

Gardner said simply it was “very fluid situation we’re trying to get our arms around.” He added: “I can’t possibly predict at this juncture what exactly is going to happen.” As of Wednesday, Gardner said that the “basis for a citizenship question if firmly enjoined, vacated and does not exist” — regardless of Trump’s tweet. But Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt said on the call that the DOJ is exploring ways to proceed with the question.

Hazel gave attorneys the Friday deadline to either stipulate that the citizenship question would not appear in the census — or provide a firm schedule about any further court action concerning the question.

Gardner asked for a delay until Monday. Hazel responded: “No.”

Scathing Trump critic attorney George Conway, husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, tweeted that Trump’s actions revealed in the conference call are “no way to run any government, let alone the government of the United States.” Then he added:

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