Editorial: Trump is taking another whack at screwing up the census. Is he gaslighting, or just desperate?

President Trump
President Trump signed a directive Tuesday that would strip noncitizen tallies from the report the Constitution requires be sent to Congress for determining House reapportionment. Expect immediate legal challenges.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

An old Ronald Reagan campaign debate line against President Carter came to mind Tuesday morning after President Trump issued yet another presidential decree that flouts the U.S. Constitution: “There you go again.”

This time, the president — who earlier failed in his effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census — signed a memorandum announcing a new gambit to remove from the census figures people living in the United States without permission. In particular, Trump wants to exclude them from the numbers used to determine how many seats in Congress each state will have for the next 10 years.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has responded in exactly the wrong way to the rare political opportunity presented in the wake of the George Floyd killing.

It’s a blatant attempt to subvert the constitutional requirement that the census conduct “an actual enumeration” of the “whole number of free persons” in the U.S. There have been legislative and regulatory tweaks over the years to accommodate unusual situations — omitting, say, foreign diplomats and their families in the country at the time of the count — but there is nothing in the Constitution that says people must be citizens to be counted for purposes of reapportionment.


Immigration hard-liners have argued over the years that reapportionment should be based on citizenship, and even on the number of registered voters, but the constitutional language is direct, and the philosophical framework is clear. Congress represents people, not just citizens or even the smaller subset of voters, and representation must be predicated upon those whole numbers. Lower-court rulings have made that clear.

For Trump to try to circumvent that principle is outrageous. We suspect the injunction will be issued in the blink of an eye after the inevitable legal challenges.

Is the president gas-lighting the nation again with this egregious overstep? Probably. This is clearly a sop to the anti-immigrant hardliners in his administration and among his political base, and it will not be the last of such actions.

President Trump is exacerbating division and inflaming discord in Portland at precisely the time the nation needs a leader to calm passions and fears.

Trump said over the weekend that he also is working on another effort to rewrite immigration rules and a new healthcare directive that presumably will undercut the Affordable Care Act, clearly political ploys reflecting his own disregard for the legislative process.

This new order needs to be looked at within the proper context. The president has lost the ability to hold his ego-stroking political rallies, is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in preelection polls, and is losing even more of the public’s faith as a raging COVID-19 pandemic kills thousands of Americans each week and stunts the economy.

So he’s going on the offensive, and once again exploiting the political and social divides that have challenged this democracy for decades. The courts, we hope, will stop him now. The voters must stop him come fall.