The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tale of a Trump falsehood: How his voter fraud claim spread like a virus

The falsehood took root a week ago, when President Trump claimed in a private Jan. 23 meeting with top congressional leaders that between 3 million and 5 million undocumented immigrants illegally voted in November's election.

From there, the infection spread, strengthened with faulty evidence and scattered anecdotes: A congressman offered his own estimate of 2.4 million illegally registered voters. The White House press secretary misrepresented the findings of a study and suggested, with no evidence, that fraud happens in “big states, very populous states and urban areas.” Other Republicans pointed to an investigation of a small batch of voter registrations in Virginia, convictions for vote-buying in local races in Kentucky and a false statistic about voter turnout in Pennsylvania being suspiciously high in 2012.

Within days, the stray comment at a reception — a variation on a false claim Trump had been making for months — led to the president's call for an investigation, plans for an executive order and a promise from Vice President Pence to Republicans that the administration would "initiate a full evaluation of voting rolls."

The voter fraud canard was just one in a rush of falsehoods that poured from Trump and his advisers during his first 10 days in office. There were also claims that the crowd on the Mall for his inauguration was the largest ever (it wasn’t); that readership at the New York Times is falling (not true, the newspaper says); that there is an “unprecedented surge of illegal migrants” (the number has stabilized after decades of growth); and that a newly implemented travel ban is similar to actions that President Barack Obama took in 2011 (it’s not).

The rapid dissemination of such easily refutable claims shows how Trump's administration will be unlike any other — and how comments rooted in conspiracy theories instead of facts can now become the basis for official government policy.

“I would urge the president to knock this off,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said soon after Trump’s igniting comment. “This is going to erode his ability to govern this country if he does not stop it.”

Tuesday, Jan. 24, about 10 a.m.: In an MSNBC interview, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said it's "plausible" that 2.4 million undocumented immigrants are registered to vote, based on his own calculations. King said "a gateway to illegal voting" is registering for a driver's license, which some states allow undocumented immigrants to do.

“Maybe they don’t understand the language, maybe they understand. They can be signed up anyway,” King said. “But some of them go in and vote. I’m completely convinced of that.”

During a 10 a.m. news conference: House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) seemed annoyed when the topic came up.

"Look, I've already commented on that," Ryan said. "I've seen no evidence to that effect, and I've made that very, very clear."

During the 1:30 p.m. White House briefing: Press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that the president "said 3 to 5 million people could've voted illegally," instead of what the president actually said, which was that millions of illegal ballots were actually cast. Spicer said the president has "studies and evidence that people have presented to him."

“There’s one that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens,” Spicer said. He seemed to be referring instead to a widely criticized study by Old Dominion University professors, who used data from 2008 and 2010 and found that 14 percent of the noncitizens in their small samples said they were registered to vote.

A 2012 study from the Pew Center on the States revealed the sloppiness of many voter rolls, but that study found no evidence that this led to fraudulent votes being cast.

During a 2 p.m. news conference on Capitol Hill: A reporter asked top Republicans in the Senate if it is true that millions of illegal ballots were cast in November.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded: "On the whole issue of election fraud, which our Democratic colleagues always argue is just a fiction, there are people literally in jail in Kentucky for this kind of activity. It does occur."

Kentucky has a long history of local officials paying people to vote for them, leading to several convictions — including three county officials who were sentenced to prison time in December. These cases involved local races, not widespread fraud in a presidential election. The National Association of Secretaries of State said that afternoon that it is “not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump.”

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 7:10 a.m.: The president started tweeting.

"I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and . . . ," Trump tweeted in his first message, then adding in a second: "even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!"

Meanwhile: Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) was on CNN and asked to respond.

“It’s always important to make sure we don’t have illegal votes. We know we have them,” Collins said, without providing evidence. “We don’t check ID when somebody comes to vote. We have states where, you know, illegal immigrants can get a license and automatically be signed up to vote. We should have American citizens voting.”

About 8 a.m.: Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) was on CNN and claimed "there are places, for instance, in and around Pennsylvania where 110 percent of the voters turn out."

“But that is not people who are here illegally,” he said. “It is not about illegals.”

Sessions's staff has yet to explain the congressman's claim. He may have conflated two examples that were included in a widely circulated web post about the 2012 election that contained made-up or misconstrued statistics.

At the 1 p.m. White House briefing: Spicer suggested that fraud is happening in "big states, very populous states and urban areas." He didn't provide any evidence.

“I don’t want to start throwing out numbers — but there’s a lot of people that are dead that are on rolls, there are people that are voting in two places or that are on the rolls in two different states, sometimes in three different states,” Spicer said.

That doesn't mean those people are voting two or three times. Several people close to Trump are registered in two states: Daughter Tiffany Trump is registered in Pennsylvania and New York. Son-in-law Jared Kushner is registered in New Jersey and New York. Chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon is registered in Florida and New York. And Spicer is registered in Virginia and Rhode Island.

Lies, untruths or misstatements? Post columnist Margaret Sullivan looks at how different newsrooms are reporting President Trump's claims over crowd size and voter fraud and how "alternative facts" can damage a democracy. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

After 10 p.m. that night: ABC News aired an interview with the president, who said there are "millions of votes" cast by dead people, "illegals" and those registered in two or three states. He pointed to the Pew report as evidence, even though it does not contain that conclusion. He also insisted that none of these illegal votes were cast for him.

“They all voted for Hillary. They didn’t vote for me,” Trump said, according to a transcript. “I don’t believe I got one.”

There are only a handful of documented cases of fraud from the November election, including a woman in Iowa who tried to vote for Trump twice, a man in Texas who claimed to be an employee of Trump’s campaign, and a Republican in Illinois.

Thursday, Jan. 26, about 7 a.m.: White House aide Kellyanne Conway appeared on NBC's "Today" show and insisted that Tiffany Trump is not registered in two states, even though there is documentation showing she is.

“I talked last night with Tiffany Trump, and she said it is flatly false,” Conway said.

About 8 a.m: On CNN, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the United States has "a long history of voter fraud."

“Just this election cycle, in my congressional district, an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party was registering dead people to vote,” Goodlatte said. “So this is something that does need to be examined.”

Authorities are investigating 19 voter applications collected by the group HarrisonburgVOTES that contained the names of people who had died, including the late father of a local judge. The incident is being blamed on a college student who worked for the group, which describes itself as nonpartisan.

Lunchtime: Aboard Air Force One, Spicer told reporters the president might sign an executive order related to voter fraud that afternoon.

Later that afternoon: Pence met privately with Republican lawmakers in Philadelphia and took a question from Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.).

"In my first election in 1982, Democrats rigged about 25 percent of the voting machines to vote for everyone on the ballot but me. That's 11 of 45 machines," Brooks said, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post.

Brooks’s office provided The Post with three newspaper clippings from 1982 showing there were reports of “voting machine irregularities” on Election Day and that the FBI was asked to investigate. There is no evidence available to confirm that such an investigation occurred.

Now, decades later, Brooks accused authorities of having “opened a huge floodgate for illegals and others to register to vote.”

Pence responded: “What I can tell you is that I would anticipate that the administration is going to initiate a full evaluation of voting rules in the country, the overall integrity of our voting system in the wake of this past election.”

At 4:52 p.m.: The White House postponed the president's signing ceremony.

Friday, Jan. 27, 8:12 a.m.: The president tweeted: "Look forward to seeing final results of VoteStand. Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!"

Phillips claims to have a database of 180 million voter registrations that he says includes 3 million people who are not citizens but voters. He has repeatedly refused to provide evidence.

Monday at the 1:30 p.m. White House briefing: The controversy over alleged voter fraud was quickly drowned out in recent days by controversy over Trump's new executive order on immigration. Trump has yet to sign an executive order related to voter fraud. Aides say they are still working out the details.

“Yes, yes, we still have plans to do that,” Spicer told reporters.

Mike DeBonis, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.