I suppose that, in theory, the job of the White House press secretary is to answer questions truthfully so that the American people are informed. I don’t know that this has ever been the case in real life; it is a theoretical ideal in the same way that Mr. Smith viewed Congress as a noble institution of debate and decision-making before he went to Washington. In practice, of course, the job of the press secretary is to offer the president’s views and actions in the most complimentary light possible.
This is not new to the White House under President Trump, but his team certainly set a remarkable standard from Day One. In his very first news briefing after the inauguration in 2017, then-press secretary Sean Spicer fervently defended Trump’s nonsensical claims that the inaugural event was attended by hundreds of thousands more people than were actually there. Crowd inflation wasn’t new to Trump, but asking reporters to trust the president over their own eyes was an interesting flag to plant.
That tradition did not leave the White House with Spicer.
On Monday, the current White House press secretary was asked about Trump’s untrue claim last week that there had been rampant voter fraud in the 2016 election.
“The president still strongly feels that there was a large amount of voter fraud,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. He “attempted to do a thorough review of it, but a lot of the states didn’t want to cooperate and participate. We certainly know that there were a large number of incidents reported, but we can’t be sure exactly how much because we weren’t able to conduct the full review that the president wanted because a number of states did not want to cooperate and refused to participate.”
From a factual standpoint, Sanders’s explanation of why Trump might be right is wrong. Trump did establish a voter fraud commission shortly after taking office, and it did fall apart. But the commission’s sweeping attempt to vacuum up voter data isn’t why it failed; it was a symptom of its failure. The commission, chaired by Vice President Pence but driven largely by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, demanded voter files from each of the 50 states. Many refused to comply because they had laws prohibiting the sharing of the information the commission sought. (This included, uh, Kansas.) Other states, including Mississippi, saw the request as an overreach by the federal government. The commission mostly fell apart, though, because it was a mess facing numerous lawsuits — and criticism from at least one person appointed to serve on it. It couldn’t get its act together on much of anything, much less gathering the info Sanders now says was necessary to prove Trump’s claim.
States themselves investigate voter fraud every day, as we noted last week, and after hundreds of complaints about such fraud, there have been almost no criminal charges filed in the wake of the November 2016 election. Among those facing charges were a woman in Illinois who cast a vote for Trump for her dead husband, a woman in North Carolina who cast a vote for Trump for her dead mother, a woman in Iowa who tried to vote twice for Trump and a guy in Texas who also tried to vote twice for Trump. Note that in each of those cases, the states detected the illegally cast ballots even without the benefit of knowing what had happened in other states. Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally without being detected — and that the illegal voting was double-voting of the sort seen in the latter two cases — is both unfounded and defiant of any logical consideration of the issue.
But notice what Sanders said! Not that Trump has seen evidence of rampant voter fraud but that Trump feels that there was a lot of fraud. Intuition has its place in leadership, of course, but “feeling” that millions of people committed a federal crime without being caught, either because they were so savvy or because there was a statewide or national conspiracy promulgated by presumably dozens of officials, none of whom have seen fit to blow the whistle? That’s not simply a function of an innocent and illogical belief.
We are left with two options. Either Trump is lying about believing that there was rampant voter fraud because he wants to maintain his incorrect assertion that Hillary Clinton didn’t win the popular vote in 2016, or Trump actually believes that this happened.
The latter is a less comfortable thing to consider. If no one has been able to convince Trump that this thing that obviously didn’t happen didn’t happen, what hope is there to convince him of other things that he’s motivated not to believe? If you can’t make clear to Trump that of course there weren’t millions of illegal votes cast in 2016 — an assertion, mind you, for which there isn’t even statistical evidence — an assertion, mind you, that even his attorneys admit is nonsense — how can you convince him of anything?
If the theoretical role of the press secretary is to convey accurate information to the public, then the theoretical role of the president is to make informed decisions on the public’s behalf. What do you do if the president refuses to be informed about things he doesn’t want to hear?