Why you should care

Because the lawyers, not Trump, were the ones to watch on July 4. 

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For a president obsessed with the power of images, Thursday’s festivities on the National Mall didn’t quite land — despite Donald Trump’s best efforts. The Army tanks arrived by rail from Georgia. The Navy’s Blue Angels staged an impressive flyover. A marble Abraham Lincoln looked out over Trump and a large crowd. His speech suited the moment: Stripped of politics and the usual Trump grievance, it spoke reverently of America’s history and lavished praise on the military.

But the rain-streaked bulletproof glass in front of him likely marred the speech’s potential as re-election campaign footage — try as Team Trump might. There was grumbling later about heavy smoke obscuring the fireworks display, which had been moved to accommodate the president’s highly unusual event. Not since Harry Truman has a president addressed the Mall on July 4th.

The main gripe though, as with all things Trump, is that his mere presence and need to be omnipresent in American life is divisive. There were protesters, some raising a “Baby Trump” balloon. And there were passionate fans wearing Make America Great Again hats, as well as a VIP section for Republican and military bigwigs.

The seeds for the event were sown in July 2017, when Trump visited France for Bastille Day and was blown away by the pomp and circumstance of the military parade there. The notion of tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue last fall for Veterans Day was nixed amid concerns over costs as high as $92 million. The July 4th Salute to America price tag, Trump said on Twitter, “will be very little compared to what it’s worth.”

And what was it worth? The imagery of a crowd ringing the reflecting pool for him is certainly of value to Trump himself.

But the ability to rally the nation behind a common goal, or even have us puff our chests out together, appears to be beyond Trump’s considerable staging and scripting abilities. Particularly when you consider what was going on elsewhere in D.C. on Thursday, as lawyers from the Justice and Commerce departments worked overtime to figure out a legal way to ask 2020 census respondents whether they are U.S. citizens.

Hatched in part by political strategist Steve Bannon and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the question, according to Census Bureau research, could produce an undercount of as much as 8 percent in households with noncitizens, as they fear the data could be used to target them for deportation. Undercounting these people — and the Constitution is quite clear that everyone in the U.S. must be counted every 10 years — can skew federal funds and political power away from immigrant communities. The Supreme Court recently rejected the Trump administration’s “contrived” rationale that it was simply trying to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But Chief Justice John Roberts left the door open for the question to be included if the administration were honest about its aims.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said this week that the census would go ahead without it, and the forms are already being printed sans citizenship query. Trump overruled him, naturally, by tweet and now says he’s considering an executive order as his lawyers toil.

Any attempt to add the question will again result in a court fight with Democratic states and the ACLU, reigniting battles over what it means to be an American that will ring far longer than any of Trump’s words delivered with jets flying overhead.

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