One week ago, perhaps inflamed by reports that Hillary Clinton was leading in the popular vote by more than 2 million votes or by impending recounts in three states that he had won, President-elect Donald Trump sent out a curious tweet. In it, Trump made a claim, without citing any evidence, that "millions of people" had voted illegally — and therefore he was actually also the winner of the popular vote.
The false claim was roundly decried as a "conspiracy theory" peddled on sites like Infowars.com that had already been widely debunked by fact-checkers. Nevertheless, numerous fact-checking organizations once again outlined why Trump's claim was unsubstantiated.
On ABC's "This Week" Sunday, host George Stephanopoulos asked Vice president-elect Mike Pence point-blank about the tweet. "That claim is groundless," Stephanopoulos said. "There's no evidence to back it up. Is it responsible for a president-elect to make false statements like that?"
What followed was an awkward exchange in which Pence attempted to defend Trump's false claim for about three minutes.
First, Pence cited Pew Research Center reports that had found "millions of inaccurate voter registrations." Stephanopoulos countered that the author of the Pew report has said there was no evidence that happened in this election or of voter fraud. (Read here for more on the Pew report Pence was likely citing.)
"I think what, you know, what is — what is historic here is that our president-elect won 30 to 50 states, he won more counties than any candidate on our side since Ronald Reagan," Pence said, attempting to pivot back from the tweet. "And the fact that some partisans, who are frustrated with the outcome of the election and disappointed with the outcome of the election, are pointing to the popular vote, I can assure you, if this had been about the popular vote, Donald Trump and I have been campaigning a whole lot more in Illinois and California and New York."
Stephanopoulos said no one was questioning their victory. "I'm asking just about that tweet, which I want to say that he said he would have won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," Stephanopoulos said. "That statement is false. Why is it responsible to make it?"
They talked over one another for a few more moments, before Pence declared: "Well, it's his right to express his opinion as president-elect of the United States." Pence said it was one of the things he found "refreshing" about Trump. Stephanopoulos persisted. "But why is it refreshing to make false statements?" he asked.
Pence then tried to take the approach that he didn't know if Trump's claim was a false statement. "I know there's no evidence for it," Stephanopoulos interjected. Pence pivoted back to the Pew Research Center and then stated, curiously, that the team was in the process of investigating voter irregularities in his own state of Indiana.
"But can you provide any evidence?" Stephanopoulos asked once more. "Can you provide any evidence to back up that statement?"
Pence: "Well, look, I think he's expressed his opinion on that. And he's entitled to express his opinion on that. And I think the American people — I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what's on his mind. And I think the connection that he made in the course..." "... whether it's true or not?" Stephanoupolos asked, as they ran out of time.
"Well, they're going to tell them—...," Pence said. "He's going to say what he believes to be true and I know that he's always going to speak in that way as president." A full transcript of the exchange is available here.