Trump outwitted the media to turn his census citizenship ‘concession’ into a win

In 1982, the day before an important group of potential investors was to tour the location of his new Atlantic City hotel, Donald Trump himself appeared at the construction site. He ordered the foreman to bring in more workers and machines the next day to make it look busier.

Except for the predictable dark suit he wears every workday, Trump has always valued appearances highly. It’s worked pretty well for him over the years, and other pols too, as it turns out.

We saw that again the other day. The Trump administration essentially won a case before the Supreme Court over its right to add a citizenship question to the April 2020 census questionnaire. But the court had lingering questions about the process, and threats of even more time-consuming liberal lawsuits would push the census well past the deadline to print millions of forms.

The citizenship question was posed on census forms in 1950, and was on the long form that about 17% of households received from 1970 to 2000. Democrats say they do not want to include the question because it might intimidate some respondents from answering. Also, of course, because Trump wants it.

And candidly, Democrats want the highest count possible, accurate or not, especially in urban areas that might increase their seats in the House of Representatives.

The Republican administration reasonably claims it wants the most accurate population count possible, excluding people residing here illegally, because population determines allocation of federal funding and House membership.

And let’s be equally candid here: Refusing to answer an official question about your citizenship is in itself a revealing answer. What U.S. citizen needs to dodge that, even without the $100 to $500 fine?

So, Democrats figured they had Trump in a hard place.

Here’s how administrations seek to manipulate media to disguise their backdowns by playing on their instinctive craving for scoops. Last week, one or two White House aides called a few D.C. reporters on background to reveal that their boss was dropping his pursuit of the citizenship question later that afternoon.

Predictably, a flurry of breaking news alerts immediately erupted reporting that Trump was soon conceding, surrendering, abandoning, giving up on the long fight. Because they wanted to believe this, Democrats and some members of the media professed glee.

Unaligned observers of Trump, however, found a sudden surrender strangely off-key for a man who feels compelled to counter every single perceived insult or slight, usually on Twitter.

Sure enough, Trump wasn’t surrendering at all. Here’s what he said later: “Today, I’m here to say we are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population.”

This is the danger of falling for advance leaks. They are carefully designed to shape crucial first impressions about news, which are the most lasting.

Political communicators do this routinely by distributing selective advance excerpts from their speeches that give a desired impression, though this may differ or be contradicted hours later in final context.

Trump, in fact, took the citizenship issue to a whole new front — one that only he controls through the federal bureaucracy.

He signed one of his favored executive orders erasing data-sharing obstacles between departments, including defense and homeland security, and compelling all to cooperate with the census bureau on estimating citizenship.

Trump called this data vital to design sound public policies in health care, civil rights, education and immigration. “We must have a reliable count of how many citizens, non-citizens and illegal aliens are in our country,” the president declared.

Recent polls indicate 60% of Americans actually agree with Trump.

Of course, he also slipped in a political shot: “As shocking as it may be, far-left Democrats in our country are determined to conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst. They probably know the number is far greater, much higher than anyone would have believed before.”

Political PR head fakes are a bipartisan tactic when dealing with the media. Look at Sen. Kamala Harris in the recent Democratic primary debates. She took bold, progressive stances onstage at night for the large audiences, then walked them back to more moderate positions on the morning shows: “What I was saying was…” This provides her campaign with video clips to have it both ways. And Trump’s pivot to a new way of getting the data, though perhaps meaningless in the end, saved him from losing face over a perceived surrender.

Blame the Founding Fathers for all this. They thought of pretty much everything at the beginning. But their constitutional census provisions stipulate counting whole, free persons. There is no mention of immigrants, since practically everyone was a recent arrival to the newborn nation.

Nor did they anticipate millions of Mexicans and others streaming across a southern boundary that was decades away from even being a U.S. border.