ROBERT COSTA: President Trump once again takes on immigration, but Census questions remain unanswered. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
President Trump pays tribute to the military and calls for unity following a week of controversy over his 4th of July plans.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We are one people chasing one dream and one magnificent destiny.
MR. COSTA: Washington remains divided and on edge about the 2020 Census, and the president fights to include a citizenship question.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think it’s very important to find out if somebody’s a citizen as opposed to an illegal.
MR. COSTA: All this as a federal watchdog shines a light on troubling conditions at the border and protesters call for migrant detention centers to be shut down. The consequences of questions and answers, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Thank you for joining us on this July 4th holiday weekend. The Trump administration pushed ahead with its Census efforts on Friday, which have alarmed advocates for migrants and rallied his political base. But the inclusion of a citizenship question remains unsettled – the latest move, coming days after President Trump broke with his administration’s lawyers and urged a standoff, came in a Friday filing in a Maryland court where Justice Department lawyers said the administration is pursuing a citizenship question. President Trump also told reporters that he’s considering an executive order to tag on that citizenship question even as the Census is now being printed.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We could also add an addition on, so we can start the printing now and maybe do an addendum after we get a positive decision. So we’re working on a lot of things, including an executive order.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Shawna Thomas, Washington bureau chief for VICE News; and Brian Bennett, White House correspondent for TIME Magazine.
Peter, you have the Census right here from 2010. It’s a piece of paper, but it’s also a broader debate about this country, about its future. Why does it matter?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s a great question. It sounds like the wonkiest debate in Washington history, right, whether one question or not should be on a piece of paper that goes out to everybody in the country. And yet it’s so fundamental. Why is it fundamental? It’s about two things: it’s about power and it’s about money. And the reason it’s about power and money is because we divide America up into districts based on this document, based on how people respond to this Census. And whether you have more districts or fewer districts, whether you have more money from the appropriations or less, depends on how many people are said to live in your community. If some people don’t choose to answer this Census because they’re afraid of answering a citizenship question, that will have an impact. And the president said something today, too, I thought that was very revealing. I think for the first time he acknowledged or at least seemed to acknowledge that he wants citizenship to be the basis for redistricting. Right now it’s based on total population, how many people live in a community, whether they’re citizens or not. He seemed to suggest in a comment that he thinks it ought to be based on citizenship, which would radically change the balance of power in this country.
MR. COSTA: Amna, you report on immigration every day, just got back from a reporting trip. Peter mentioned how this could deter some non-citizens, migrants, from participating in the Census. What does your reporting reveal about that?
AMNA NAWAZ: Well, there’s definitely some fear already, right, just the possibility of a question like this in – which we haven’t had since 1950 in this country has sowed some kind of discontent, some fear, a little skepticism too. And there’s always been that within recently-arrived or immigrant or non-citizen communities in America, a little bit of skepticism about engaging with federal authorities, why is this information necessary, how is it going to be used. There was a lot of that when this was first raised with this administration, particularly because of a lot of the anti-immigrant language that the president ran on, campaigned on, and has continued throughout his presidency. So honestly some people are saying even though the question, you know, may or may not be added to the actual Census, the damage may be done. The fear is already kind of there. People who may be legally here, by the way – we’re not just talking about people who are here as undocumented residents. People who are legally here, may be seeking citizenship, may be a little bit reluctant to participate anyway.
MR. COSTA: And this –
SHAWNA THOMAS: And even the plaintiffs in their filings over the last couple of days in the Maryland court, they mentioned this thing about if the president tweets what he tweeted out, where they had to reverse course and say, yes, we are going to try to still get the question in, that could just from a media perspective cause more fear in those communities, and people will start to believe even if the question isn’t actually on that piece of paper when we all get it that they think it’s there, and that can – even that can have a chilling effect on our ability to, like, count the entire country.
MR. COSTA: And the Census Bureau’s own experts have said that in their conclusions, that it could lead to people to sit out the process.
MS. THOMAS: Well, they even – so what they did was they compared it to what’s known as the American Community Survey, which is something that goes out every year and does a portion – like, a small mini-Census that then you use algorithms and math and things I don’t understand – (laughter) – to try to, like, project how many people are out there. And they do include a citizenship question on it, and they compared that data to the data from the 2010 Census and basically were, like, we think that the reason why less people respond here is because of this question.
MR. COSTA: So why is the president doing this, Brian? You recently sat down with President Trump in the Oval Office for a TIME Magazine cover story. Is this all about 2020, seizing on his signature issue?
BRIAN BENNETT: There is definitely a political element to this. The president does best with his base and supporters when he looks like he’s fighting for issues that he campaigned on, and one of the signature issues is more restrictive immigration policies. And so by picking this fight and looking like he’s going to take every step he possibly can to get this question onto the Census, he’s showing his base that he’s willing to fight for what he campaigned on, and that polls very well. It also keeps the issue in the headlines, which his campaign is using to recruit new people and build up their voter base.
MR. COSTA: What about the executive order idea? Chief Justice John Roberts, he concluded that the Trump administration needs to provide a better rationale if they want to get the Supreme Court’s support in a decision for including the citizenship question. In the meantime, the president’s talking about executive action. Is that a reality, legally and politically?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m not 100 percent sure why it would be different to have the president sign an order as opposed to his Cabinet officer sign an order, except that it does make a difference, I think, in terms of timing, in terms of the administrative process. There are things that the Commerce Department, Census Bureau have to go through to add the question that might not be applicable if the president signs an executive order. So if they get a quick ruling from the Supreme Court, the argument would be, they could move faster off of his order. It also presumably imputes his power more. It goes directly to the president’s Article II power under the Constitution, in which he is the chief of the executive branch, not the commerce secretary, not the Census Bureau, and that might give it more authority, more resonance with justices who care about executive authority.
MS. THOMAS: But it’s worth reiterating they will go to court again.
MR. BAKER: They will.
MS. THOMAS: I mean, they’re still in court without it, number one. Even if he has an executive order, someone will sue because that’s what happens with almost all of his executive orders. And they will have to – and they may fast-track it. And they fast-tracked this to try to get the Census – just so – because the government said that it needed to be – start printing in July.
MR. COSTA: And on that point, you say they’ll keep suing. In part this is because critics of the president’s position say the rationale has already been underscored by discovered evidence from computer files from a Republican strategist, the late Thomas Hoffler, who died last summer. His estranged daughter found hard drives that said if Republicans move on the Census in this way it would help them politically. And so there’s a feeling among the president’s critics who are in court that the rationale –
MS. THOMAS: This is for discriminatory purposes. Yeah, that’s – that is how they feel. Now, Justice John Roberts didn’t allow – basically the government has already sort of said – or the courts have already sort of said: We don’t totally know if we agree with that rationale. And that isn’t why John Roberts sent this back. But it does seem that the judge in Maryland now is saying, OK, we can go into discovery about whether it is discriminatory or not. So that’s already part of the case.
MR. COSTA: And you look at the citizenship question, it was included 50-60 years ago in the Census Bureau in the whole document. What do we know about why it was taken off? Was it – there was reporting from NBC that it was because it – they wanted to make sure that people participated?
MS. NAWAZ: That’s right. Yeah, the goal was – yeah. This is – this is – you know, to Peter’s point originally, this is how we figure out where the money goes. And wherever the money goes, the power follows. And America is a completely different country today than it was back in 1950. They recognize that. They decided participation was more important than determining citizenship at the time. And that’s why the ACS filled in the blanks on some of the citizenship questions.
But I don’t want to get lost in this conversation that the administration’s original rationale for putting that in, the case that they publicly stated from the commerce secretary on down, was: This will help us enforce the Voting Rights Act. That’s why we’re including this, is because we want to protect minority communities.
MR. COSTA: And the chief justice said that was contrived, to use his words.
MS. NAWAZ: Exactly.
MR. COSTA: Is – Amna mentioned the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. Is he on thin ice with President Trump?
MR. BENNETT: So President Trump was asked that question today. And President Trump said, no, he’s comfortable with Wilbur Ross, and his job is not in jeopardy. But this –
MR. COSTA: Do you believe that?
MR. BENNETT: I don’t believe it. I think this does cause another rift between the two of them. They’ve been at odds before, when Wilbur Ross came up with some bad headlines for Trump. And so I think this creates another strain. There’s a – there’s sort of a feeling on Trump that – from Trump that Wilbur Ross could have given many different explanations for why they were going forward with this question, one that would hold up better in court.
MR. COSTA: Wasn’t he just following the law?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, he’s trying to find a rationale that would be acceptable to the courts. And the courts obviously have a great investment in enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But it just didn’t seem – it seemed transparent on its face. And he didn’t need the, you know, lost files from the Republican consultant to understand that there is a potential partisan, you know, motivation here. Both parties try to game the system as best they can through these districting exercises. We’re about to have a once-a-decade count that will influence who controls the districts and the rewriting of the districts for the next 10 years. So of course, a lot is at stake here.
MR. COSTA: What can Democrats do? What are their options here?
MS. THOMAS: I mean, there is some talk, though I don’t think this would get through the Senate, that you could actually maybe write a law and say: Hey, the decennial census doesn’t include a citizenship question. They could go down that route in Congress. But short of that, this is just going to have to play out in the courts.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with immigration. A report by the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General, it warned of dangerous overcrowding at detention centers on the southern border. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic lawmakers visited two detention centers in Texas this week and talked about the lack of food and showers, and parents being separated from their children.
REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) There’s abuse in these – in these facilities. There’s abuse. This is them on their best behavior, and they put them in a room with no running water.
MR. COSTA: President Trump defended the Border Patrol in Friday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Border Patrol did not train to be doctors and nurses and janitors. That’s not what they trained to be. They trained to be Border Patrol. And that’s what they’re doing. And they’re doing a phenomenal job.
MR. COSTA: Does the IG’s report back up your reporting, Amna? You’ve been at some of these processing centers at the border.
MS. NAWAZ: A hundred percent. What they were able to publish in pictures was exactly what I saw on the ground. I was in detention centers in Arizona earlier this year, and what I’ve heard from Border Patrol and other sources along other parts of the border too. It has been this way for a while, and it has been getting worse. And I think what’s most striking is – and I’ve covered immigration here for many years, also in other countries, I’ve seen how it’s handled, and especially when we have refugee populations streaming across borders in unprecedented ways, which we have right now in the U.S.
The language and the mission statement coming from the highest levels has very little to do with how to protect people and better process and serve them. It has everything to do with trying to keep people out, and not sending the funds and the resources where they’re needed. And you hear that from Border Patrol too. You heard the president there echoing some of their concerns. They say: This is not my job. We’re using operational budget to buy diapers, and baby formula, and kids clothing to give to these people. And they are not resourced for it. These detention centers are not built for this. And it’s not getting any better.
MR. COSTA: What’s with the mixed messages from the president on this front? A few days ago he says these migrant detention centers, they should be a deterrent from people coming to this country. Now on Friday, he calls them nice.
MR. BENNETT: He wants them to be a deterrent. That’s the larger policy and that’s what – when President Trump came into office, they wanted to try to hold people longer. Previously when families were – came into the country and the detention centers were full, they’d be released with a court order to appear. So now they’re just packing people into these detention centers. And the conditions, we’ve seen, are terrible and unhealthy. So what’s the president doing? He has one policy, which is a policy of deterrence. He’s hoping that people will get a message to not come – which if you look at the numbers is not working. And then on the other side, he doesn’t want to get blamed for it. So he says that there’s been a long pattern of doing this, but nothing on the scale that we’re seeing right now under the Trump administration.
MS. THOMAS: Yeah, a lot of people try to make the comparison to what happened, especially in 2014, 2013 with the Obama administration and a lot of unaccompanied minors who came over the border. And some of the pictures we are seeing now do look like those pictures. But one thing is that the Obama administration was, like, OK, one, they were sort of slapped down when it comes to holding people for too long. We need to send money to Central America. We got to figure something out there. And, two, they weren’t putting in policies that made it worse. So part of the problem here – and CBP is not designed to hold people for more than 72 hours.
Part of the problem, especially with children, is that the HHS facilities they’re supposed to go to are overwhelmed as well. And part of the reason they’re overwhelmed is because the government has made it – even though this is starting to change – a little bit harder for sponsors to actually, like, claim these kids. And so then that causes a backup with CBP as well.
MR. COSTA: The House Judiciary Committee and Oversight Committees have both announced hearings into these detention centers that’ll take place next week. Will this administration feel pressure about these centers?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think they feel pressure about it, but there’s two sides of pressures, right? If you were working at the DHS, the pressure you’ve been feeling in the last few months is from the president to be tougher, not softer. And while this is obviously an optics problem as well as a humanitarian problem, and a problem on the ground with real people, if you were looking at whether you were going to keep your job at the DHS, the ticket to success so far has not been telling the president, no, we can’t do that, no, we need to do something different. That’s been the – that’s been the path out the door.
So I think that the – that it’s going to be a rough couple weeks for the people who are trying to deal with this issue. Money is on the way. It’s now been approved by the president and by Congress, but it’ll take a while till it starts cycling through the system. And in the meantime, you’re going to see more of these pictures and more of this – of this debate.
MR. COSTA: Will the people keep coming up from Central America? You were just on the Venezuela border for PBS NewsHour. What is driving them to come here at this moment?
MS. NAWAZ: Well, Venezuela’s a very specific situation, right? The country’s basically been in a freefall for several years. I was on the Brazilian side of the border, where they’ve now started to receive over the last two years a record number of people. It’s the largest migration ever between the two countries that’s going on. They’re very different countries, very different circumstances. But I will say this – (laughs) – it was remarkable to see the difference in how the Brazilian government – which by all accounts the two leaders are considered very similar. Jair Bolsonaro is called the Trump of the tropics, right?
But it was remarkable to see that they have funded an entire effort there to say, OK, you folks are fleeing something that is legitimate. We understand that you are – you’re going to come here regardless. We’re going to do the best job we can in receiving you and processing you humanely. Things as simple as having water available for people at their will. CBP does not have that. We don’t have that in the U.S. And it doesn’t look like we’re going to have it anytime soon.
MR. COSTA: And beyond the issues of just migrants coming, there are new tensions this week on social media. ProPublica reported the existence of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents. There were posts on this group’s page joking about migrants deaths, obscene pictures, doctored images, offensive posts about Representative Ocasio-Cortez. Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of DHS, called it disturbing and inexcusable. But there are all these issues from the Census to the Facebook posts, to what’s happening on the ground that are inflaming the situation.
MS. THOMAS: And it just points to the division that currently is in this country. I think the CBP posts – it’s one of those things where you know that they didn’t intend for that to become public. It is improper. But also, I will say, they’re under an enormous amount of pressure. And it seems a little bit like offensively blowing off steam, which all of us have done at some point or another. But I don’t – it underscores the amount of pressure these people are under.
MR. COSTA: Despite the on and off again rain, crowds gathered on the National Mall on the 4th of July to hear President Trump pay tribute to American achievements since the Revolution. The speech came after a week of debate over the military presence at the event, and the way taxpayer funds were used.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) As long as we stay true to our cause, as long as we remember our great history, as long as we never, ever stop fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: As the Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott noted, quote, “The Mall is fundamentally a civic rather than a military space, centered on a monument to Abraham Lincoln, the man who led the country through Civil War.” The president gave a very standard patriotic speech on the 4th of July, but it was preceded by a lot of debate over those tanks that were on the Mall, the military’s involvement. What was the White House’s plan all along?
MR. BENNETT: So President Trump wanted a military parade. He wanted to take a holiday and have some sort of commemoration of the American military. I was there in France in 2017 when President Trump sat on the Champs-Elysees and saw the Bastille Day parade, and for two hours he saw the tanks and military formations come by, and he absolutely loved it and wanted to do something like that here. What was interesting was the way that President Trump – two things – one, he didn’t do what we all expected him to do, which was to politicize the speech. He’s done that before on formal occasions, where he attacked political enemies or, you know, did other things that were beyond the usual decorum for situations like that. The other thing that was interesting, though, was that he was able to still make himself the center of the event. So when – at Bastille Day you didn’t have French President Macron narrating the entire event. In this situation you had President Trump speaking for nearly an hour narrating the histories of the different military branches and when there were flyovers talking about them, so he was still able to make himself the center of a military parade.
MR. COSTA: The National Park Service had to divert over $2 million in fees to support this event. We’re still trying to figure out how much the Pentagon spent. Does the administration pay a cost for how this played out and for those funds being used, or because of the way it unfolded – without much drama in terms of his rhetoric – does it just fade away as a political issue?
MS. NAWAZ: You know, the lack of transparency from the administration is nothing new, so I think how much we actually learn about where the money came from, what was actually spent may come out in the – in the weeks to follow in some of the reporting that comes after this. But I will say what was unsurprising about the entire event was that of all the titles that President Trump holds in his office, commander in chief has been the one that he’s really, really embraced, right? And for Trump the American narrative that he sells and that he runs on and that he constantly sort of celebrates very publicly has always revolved around the military. Yes, it’s a core part of his constituency as well, but it is for him really the story of American power. It’s American might and it’s American strength, and that’s what we saw last night.
MR. COSTA: I thought about you, Peter. You asked the president at the G-20 about Western liberalism. What did you learn about the president through this event?
MR. BAKER: What – (laughs) –
MR. COSTA: As a student of the presidency, writer –
MR. BAKER: I think in some ways it’s what we learn about ourselves, right? I think this is – to borrow Shawna’s point about who we are and our divisions at this point in America, it was like a Rorschach test. If you were a Trump supporter you looked at that and said, what’s wrong with this? This is the president of the United States celebrating America. It was not an overt speech. He didn’t have a MAGA hat on. He didn’t ask for reelection votes. He was celebrating America. He talked about our cultural history, our – you know, our artists and our civil rights leaders and our suffragists, as well as the military. So what’s wrong with that? The president should do that. If you’re not somebody who supports President Trump, you saw, you know, like, North Korea redux. You saw, you know, a politicized event in which the president had to make it all about himself, an ultimate narcissistic exercise. And I think the way we came at this event tells us a lot about where we are right now as a country.
MS. THOMAS: Well, I also – I found it interesting, especially as a television news producer, that he wanted the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial and then he didn’t get the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial because he put people behind him. And that I was curious about why they did that because if you want to be the center of attention and you want to tell this American story, you want to be compared to Abraham Lincoln. And so it ended up being, I think, just kind of another normal 4th of July day. And in some ways because all of this led up to all this consternation about, like, what does this mean and what is he doing and why is he celebrating tanks and things like that, and then he ended up actually being presidential yesterday. And so he won on all those levels, in the leadup and also in, like, actually nailing – being kind of boring. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: And they also feel like they had a strong day on Friday, Brian, at the White House because of the jobs numbers.
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, very strong jobs numbers came out after a couple months where jobs seemed – the job growth seemed to be softening, and so the White House and President Trump are going to be out there for the next few days trying to trumpet that and trying to trumpet the economy, an issue that he loves to step on even when his advisors tell him that he should be talking about it.
MR. COSTA: Does it mean the trade war is over, or at least the fears about it ruining the economy or hurting the economy?
MR. BAKER: It may actually embolden him a little bit on the China talks, for instance; in other words, to the extent that he was worried about a softening economy, might have made him offer more concessions or accept less from the Chinese than he was demanding, now he might feel like he’s got a little wind at his back. The markets are up. As he pointed out, all three markets had record days this week. So, you know, there are worrisome signs on the horizon; the trade deficit’s actually up, not down; but for the most part he’s feeling good about the economy.
MR. COSTA: So he’s feeling good about the economy, but Justin Amash of Michigan – we’re going to get to this more in the webcast – he left the Republican Party.
MS. THOMAS: He did. So Justin Amash from Michigan, who is a Tea Partier, basically said the Republicans are not doing their job, they need to keep this president in check, and he wrote a Washington Post article about it.
MR. COSTA: And we’ll talk about that more in a minute. (Laughter.) Thanks, everybody.
Up next on that Washington Week Extra we will discuss those debates and how they’re influencing the race for the Democratic nomination and Justin Amash and 2020. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube every Friday at 8:30 p.m.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy the weekend.