How much of a mess has the White House made of this census dispute? So much that the Justice Department lawyers who’ve been handling the case for months are now trying to walk away from it en masse…

…and the courts won’t let them. It’s a federal judge who’s insisting for the moment that Trump’s A-team at the DOJ remain on the job, arguing his side.

At least until they give him a good reason why they shouldn’t. Can they? From today’s order denying the lawyers’ motion to withdraw:

Let’s back up. The DOJ initially convinced SCOTUS to take up the question of whether a citizenship question could be placed on the census in part by noting that time was of the essence. The census, supposedly, had to be at the printers by June 30. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and issued its verdict two weeks ago: Although the executive has power to add questions to the census, wrote John Roberts, it’s … pretty obvious that they’ve been lying about why they want the citizenship question added to it. The public needs clarity on that and the administration’s stated reasoning, that they need citizenship info to enforce the Voting Rights Act, simply isn’t supported by the evidence.

So the White House was thwarted unless and until it could provide a more credible explanation for wanting the citizenship question included — but since the deadline for printing the census was almost here, it seemed like there’d be no time to reconsider the matter. And so, inevitably, the DOJ announced on July 2 that the citizenship question would be dropped. Then Trump got to talking to his friends, who urged him to fight on, and he declared the next day — in a tweet — that the question wouldn’t be dropped after all, that the DOJ would fight on. And what about the June 30 deadline? Well, maybe the deadline wasn’t such a hard and fast deadline after all. Even though believing that it was helped convince SCOTUS to hear this appeal.

A federal judge in Maryland held a phone conference with the DOJ’s lawyers on July 3, after Trump’s tweet, to try to get a straight answer as to whether they were dropping the case or fighting on. The lawyers seemed as confused as the judge by the state of play:

All they had was a tweet. “This is a very fluid situation,” said Gardner later in the call, with no small amount of understatement. A source told the WSJ that “Nobody has any f***ing idea” what Trump wanted them to do.

Then came the next newsflash this past Sunday: The entire team of DOJ lawyers working on this case was planning to withdraw from it, a move which the NYT described as “all but unprecedented in legal battles.” Even stranger, the DOJ offered no explanation for the change. They didn’t offer one to the court either, per today’s order. You can’t just walk away without a good reason, said the judge, especially when you’ve spent months insisting that there’s a deadline here and time is of the essence in resolving the matter.

Why would the entire “federal programs” seek to drop the case like a hot potato? Maybe, said the Times, it’s because they feel the administration’s told so many lies — about its reasoning for wanting the question on the census, about the supposedly hard-and-fast deadline for the census, etc — that it’d be unethical for them to continue. That is, maybe they believe there’s no way to go forward here without either lying to the court or admitting that previous representations to the court were lies.

[The motion to withdraw] strongly suggested that the department’s career lawyers had decided to quit a case that at the least seemed to lack a legal basis, and at most left them defending statements that could well turn out to be untrue.

“There is no reason they would be taken off that case unless they saw what was coming down the road and said, ‘I won’t sign my name to that,’” Justin Levitt, a former senior official in the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, said on Sunday…

Lawyers who had been working on the case apparently concluded that they faced three problems. They had told the Supreme Court that they were up against a strict deadline of June 30 for printing the census forms, and there were difficulties in finding a new justification for the question that would not seem invented out of whole cloth. They may have also concluded that there was no way to move speedily enough to restore the question in any event, given that constitutional and statutory frameworks seem to require a lengthy administrative process before new questions may be added to the census.

If they objected to continuing on with the case due to ethical reasons, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to state that in their motion to withdraw and risk embarrassing Trump and the department. But the federal judge who issued today’s order has called their bluff. Either they have to get back to work or they have to openly admit their ethical misgivings about what they’re being asked to do, which will be an unholy PR clusterfark for the White House and the DOJ. What are they going to do?

To give you a sense of just how messy this has gotten, read this story about the many times federal officials have contradicted their own stated reasoning for wanting to add the citizenship question to the census. Remember, it’s supposed to be about the Voting Rights Act, but figures like Ken Cuccinelli have admitted at times that the information might be used in immigration enforcement. And Trump himself admitted just a few days ago that it might be used for redistricting, perhaps to try to exclude illegals from the count in apportioning House districts. My takeaway from John Roberts’s opinion in the SCOTUS ruling was that he was straining for ways to give Trump the green light to do this but, as a matter of basic judicial integrity, couldn’t allow the administration to lie baldfaced to the Court about what its motives were. Now you have the president all but confessing that the Voting Rights Act rationale wasn’t the real reason for asking about citizenship on the census. If this case comes back to SCOTUS, Roberts may feel obliged to rule against Trump purely because it would embarrass the Court at this point to reward the administration with a win after lying so brazenly.

Trump may “win” anyway, though, if not in court than by making enough of a fuss about this that some illegals will refuse to answer the census questionnaire, leading to an undercount of the population in blue districts with large illegal populations. He might still win in court too, with POTUS reportedly considering an executive order to include the question on the census and begin printing. Again, though, that would operate as a sort of middle finger to SCOTUS, ignoring Roberts’s demand for a clearer rationale for including the question and ordering the government to proceed with it anyway on Trump’s say-so. If SCOTUS tries to stop him, then we’re in constitutional crisis territory. But first, we wait to see what the DOJ will do about today’s “get back to work” order.