NOEL KING, HOST:
President Trump is still trying to get a question about citizenship onto the U.S. census, even after the Supreme Court essentially said no. Now the president has had yet another setback. The Department of Justice announced it has revamped the legal team that's been pushing for the citizenship question. Yesterday, a judge in New York said, no, these lawyers cannot withdraw - not unless they have a good reason. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering the census. And he's here to explain this most recent news. Good morning, Hansi.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: OK, so it continues. What did the federal judge say yesterday?
WANG: This is U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of New York. He called this request for career Justice Department attorneys to withdraw from this case that they've been working on - he called this request, quote, "patently deficient." And he says the administration provided, quote, "no reasons, let alone satisfactory reasons" in order for lawyers to withdraw. And this is a setback for the Trump administration because it wanted to move forward with a new set of attorneys. And the Justice Department declined to comment yesterday on this new order from the judge.
KING: So what makes this so curious is that the lawyers have not said why they want to withdraw? But I know that you've been talking to former Justice Department attorneys about how unusual or how typical this is. What are they telling you?
WANG: Well. I talked to one former Justice Department attorney, Sam Oliker-Friedland. He entered the service under President Obama, just left earlier this year under President Trump. And he said this is a very, very unusual situation. Let's listen - what he said.
SAM OLIKER-FRIEDLAND: To reassign the trial team at this stage in litigation is - to not put too fine a point on it - insane. To sort of throw someone in the deep end at this point in any litigation this major causes massive disruption. And as the client, you would never ask your attorneys to do that unless there was a good reason to.
WANG: And the concern here that Sam Oliker-Friedland, as well as other former DOJ attorneys I've talked to - they've raised is that could this reason be that Justice Department attorneys who have been, again, working on this case for months - do they feel at this point, with the Trump administration trying to move forward with getting this question onto the 2020 census - could they be under so much pressure that they feel like they are being pushed to violate ethical standards going forward? Could that be the reason? Again, we don't know exactly why the Justice Department has not given official reason. But we're going to see what happens next year.
KING: Good question. What does happen next with these cases? We're in the middle of litigation, right? So where does this go?
WANG: Right. The stakes are very high here. And Judge Jesse Furman has ordered the lawyers - if they do want to leave, they have to provide sworn statements explaining exactly why they're leaving. So I'm watching for that. And it's interesting because a judge is about to, you know, officially start reviewing allegations of a cover-up within the Trump administration involving the citizenship question. And I'm also going to see - also watching to see what happens in Maryland, where the Justice Department has also asked for a team of attorneys to withdraw from the citizenship cases there. That judge is reviewing discrimination and conspiracy allegations against the citizenship question. So there's a lot going on while the Trump administration tries to switch out attorneys.
KING: And I know that you've been watching this like a hawk. Just quickly, are we expecting any more plot twists along the way?
WANG: The Trump administration may be announcing any day now their new strategy for getting the citizenship question onto the 2020 census. And that will certainly spark probably more legal challenges and more twists and turns.
KING: Because the Supreme Court told them, if you're going to put this on the census, you need a better reason. All right. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks so much, Hansi.
WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.