All of that was executive-order-speak for the investigation Trump actually sought: An effort to suss out any and all examples of people demonstrably — or possibly — having voted illegally.
Before the 2016 election, Trump warned ominously of the threat of illegal votes, a long-standing boogeyman on the right that was often used as an excuse to impose new voting restrictions that had the not-always-accidental side effect of making it harder for Democrats to vote. (There is, we hasten to note, zero evidence of even relatively frequent illegal voting.) Trump raised this ghoulish specter because, it’s safe to assume, he wanted a fail-safe in the event that he lost: It wasn’t that he was not the choice of the American people, he could argue, it was that the other side cheated. (It’s certainly the case, though, that a man whose media diet slants heavily toward the far right and the conspiratorial may actually have believed the argument he was making.)
Then something weird happened: He won and lost the election. He would be president, but the votes indicated that the country actually preferred the other candidate by a pretty wide margin. So Trump, oddly, embraced the idea that there was rampant fraud in the election anyway, despite it yielding the result he wanted. He championed a random guy’s tweet that claimed to prove that millions of votes were cast illegally — a figure that would make Trump, not Hillary Clinton, the choice of real Americans.
Hence the commission: Prove that Clinton’s victory wasn’t what it appeared.
Vice President Pence, though, knows the political world better than that. Trump’s commission faced hostility out of the gates, as Democratic states realized that it could be the first step in rolling back access to the polling place. So Pence’s introduction at the first meeting of the commission that he chairs was careful to paint a picture that was broader than just Trump’s concerns.
“President Trump knows that the integrity of our electoral system transcends party lines,” he said, “and I’m grateful this commission has brought together a bipartisan group from the federal, state and local level. Together, this bipartisan group will perform a truly nonpartisan service to the American people.”
All well and good. And then he introduced his vice chair: Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
For those unaware, this is a bit like a wolf standing up and giving a speech about how predators and prey will work together to establish peace on the prairie, and then introducing his vice chair, a bobcat.
Kobach made a national name for himself fighting the scourge of voter fraud in Kansas — a fight which has resulted in a handful of actual convictions. He’s never been able to demonstrate any significant voter fraud but has continued to make the case that it exists nonetheless, like a frustrated gold prospector returning to a fruitless mine time and time again.
Pence continued. He explained that the commission had “been charged to study the registration and voting processes used in federal elections” and that it would “identify the laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies and practices that will enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of our electoral system.” Oh, and also? It would “explore the vulnerabilities in our system that could lead to improper voter registration and even improper voting.”
He made a sweeping promise:
This commission — let me be clear — this commission has no preconceived notions or preordained results. We’re fact-finders. And in the days ahead, we will gather the relevant facts and data, and at the conclusion of our work, we will present the president with a report of our findings.
Evenhanded. About election integrity. About protecting the vote. No preconceptions at all — except that Kobach argued last November that there were more illegal votes cast for Clinton than her margin of victory.
After Pence was done, Trump appeared from behind an American-flag backdrop and offered his view.
This commission is tasked with the sacred duty of upholding the integrity of the ballot box and the principle of one citizen, one vote. Every time voter fraud occurs, it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen and undermines democracy. Can’t let that happen.
Any form of illegal or fraudulent voting, whether by noncitizens or the deceased, and any form of voter suppression or intimidation must be stopped. I’m pleased that more than 30 states have already agreed to share the information with the commission and the other states that information will be forthcoming.
If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about. And I ask the vice president and I ask the commission: What are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.
This issue is very important to me because throughout the campaign and even after, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities which they saw, in some cases, having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.
Emphasis added, since we should look at each of these claims.
To the first bit, about how there’s “always something”: Trump is stoking the fires of his slow-burning conspiracy theory that Democrats in Democratic-run states used illegal voting to undercut Republican candidates, including himself. Why would a state not acquiesce to a simple data request from the federal government unless they were terrified that the feds were about to uncover their fraudulent voting systems?
Well, one reason was offered by the secretary of state from Mississippi, who responded to the commission’s request for data by saying that his state had the “right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral process.” He further invited the commission to “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Mississippi, students of politics will recall, is not a particularly liberal state. The “something” at the heart of its decision to reject the original data request — a decision shared by most other states — was an interest in protecting resident privacy.
Trump said that “throughout the campaign and even after, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities which they saw.” Well, sure. Trump was using his campaign megaphone to say “this thing exists,” and people would come up to him and say “I saw it, too!” Having written about this subject repeatedly, I will often receive emails from people who claim to have witnessed fraud. In no case was any actual voter fraud witnessed; instead, people often point to wisps in the air, declare them to be smoke and announce that they’ve spotted a fire.
If there were rampant fraud observable by random individuals, it’s hard to understand why that fraud wouldn’t be rooted out. In fact, there have been efforts to uncover pervasive fraud in the past, including by the George W. Bush administration. When contesting a voter recount effort in Michigan, in fact, Trump’s campaign lawyers admitted that there was no evidence of fraud in the election. But people tell Trump what he wants to hear and then he relays those comments as evidence in support of what he wants to do.
After the comments above, Trump quoted Teddy Roosevelt on election integrity (eliding the salient detail that, in Roosevelt’s era, the situation was very different). He then praised the “bipartisan panel consisting of both Republican and Democratic leaders and experts on voter integrity,” which itself glosses over the fact that the panel includes a few token Democrats and a lot of more-prominent Republicans and people who have spent years focused on unearthing alleged fraud.
“I’ll share your report as soon as I can and as soon as possible with the American people so the full truth will be known and exposed if necessary in the light of day,” Trump concluded, strongly hinting at the preconceived notion he of course doesn’t have.
Trump, as he often does, had said the thing he wasn’t supposed to say. The meeting was not supposed to be about his conspiracy theory. It was supposed to be about an evenhanded look at voting systems, a lot of chin-stroking academics who were weighing the evidence impartially.
So Pence was given the microphone and did a little cleanup.
This is a bipartisan group that will perform a nonpartisan service to the American people. Our goal, as the executive order asserts, is to help promote free and honest federal elections. Our charge is to study the registration and voting process used in federal elections, and our charge is to explore vulnerabilities in the system that could lead to improper voter registration and improper voting.
Let me reiterate the point I made earlier, now that we’re on the record. We have no preconceived notions or preordained results. Our duty is to go where the facts lead and to provide the president and the American people with a report on our findings that can be used to strengthen the people’s confidence in our electoral system.
Over the course of the 2016 campaign, we saw two Trumps: The one speaking off the cuff and the one reading from the teleprompter. As the election wound down, Trump figured out a balance; he’d read some remarks from the prompter and then riff on them a bit.
But that bifurcation remains within the administration. Trump is the guy who says what he wants. Pence is the guy who reads the stuff that goes on the teleprompter.
There’s a reason that so many voters preferred Trump’s way of communicating: At least it matched with what he really believed.