(Reuters)

President Trump, who has repeatedly asserted without evidence that illegally cast ballots cost him the popular vote against Hillary Clinton, told his election integrity commission Wednesday to proceed with “a very open mind and with no conclusions already drawn.”

“You will fairly and objectively follow the facts wherever they may lead,” Trump told the panel, which was meeting for the first time but has already drawn heavy flak from critics who say it is stacked with members with a long history of overstating voter fraud.

In his remarks, Trump spoke in dark terms, saying “every time voter fraud occurs it cancels out the vote of a lawful citizen and undermines democracy.” He said the issue was important to him because he heard about it from voters concerned about “inconsistencies and irregularities which they saw, in some cases, having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states.”

But Trump stopped short of asking the 12-member panel to prove his claim about widespread vote fraud in the 2016 election — a fact that the panel’s vice chairman and driving force, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), told reporters was telling.

“That’s not our job,” Kobach said of the commission, which is tasked with improving the confidence of voters in the nation’s elections.

(Reuters)

Kobach later told MSNBC that “we may never know” whether Clinton actually won the popular vote. He said the commission will try to determine the extent of fraudulent voting last year but has no way to know whether illegally cast ballots helped Clinton or Trump more.

After the election, Trump claimed that he had not only prevailed in the electoral college but would have won the popular vote if he hadn’t been thwarted by as many as 5 million illegal votes. He repeated that assertion numerous times on Twitter while calling for a presidential commission on voter fraud. Trump’s claim has been dismissed by voting experts and state election officials.

Vice President Pence, who Trump tapped to chair the 12-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, presided over the group’s first meeting Wednesday at the White House complex.

“This commission, let me be clear, has no preconceived notions or preordained results,” Pence said. “We’re fact-finders.”

During his brief remarks, Trump repeatedly characterized the group as a “bipartisan panel” — it includes seven Republicans and five Democrats — and said it is engaging in “very, very important work.”

President Trump, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, center left, speaks at the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Both Pence and Kobach are Republicans. The vice president promised a “healthy and robust debate” in the months ahead.

Even before its first gathering, the commission had prompted intense controversy. A request for massive amounts of voter data from the states last month was met with resistance, even from Republican-led states, and prompted multiple lawsuits.

The suits accuse the panel of breaching the privacy of tens of millions of Americans and offering no indication of what it plans to do with the data, which include home addresses, dates of birth and partial Social Security numbers.

The commission has temporarily halted its collection efforts while awaiting a court ruling on whether it can continue. Kobach told reporters Wednesday that an adverse decision would be “a big impediment” to the commission’s work.

Trump said he’s pleased that more than 30 states agreed to provide information as allowed under their respective state laws and that other states should be more forthcoming.

“If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they are worried about,” Trump said. “And I ask the vice president, I ask the commission, what are they worried about? There’s something, there always is.”

The panel discussed several other sources of data that would be helpful to its mission, including lists of potential jurors dismissed by courts across the country because they are noncitizens. Juror polls are typically drawn from the voter rolls.

Members also suggested other areas to explore in coming months, as they hold meetings around the country, including whether election fraud is being prosecuted vigorously enough and the risks posed by online voting registration.

The panel’s Republicans include several members — Kobach chief among them — who have crusaded against election voter fraud, including voters registered in multiple states and undocumented immigrants on the voting rolls.

On Kobach’s office wall in Topeka is a framed copy of a voting law he helped craft, the 2011 Secure and Fair Elections Act, which requires citizens who register to vote using the state voter form to provide certain proof-of-citizenship documents, such as a birth certificate or a passport. Those with incomplete voter registration applications are removed from the rolls after 90 days and must re-register. In the past couple of years, he has pushed for other states to require similar proof of citizenship.

During introductory remarks, one commissioner, Hans von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, complained of unfair criticism that has been directed at the commission.

Von Spakovsky said he and other commissioners have been subject to “vicious and defamatory attacks” by those trying to avoid substantive debate on an important issue. He cited a database maintained by Heritage showing 1,071 documented instances of voter fraud across the country.

One of the Democratic members of the panel, Alan L. King, a probate judge in Jefferson County, Ala., told commissioners that he had seen no evidence of fraud in his jurisdiction.

King, who serves as his county’s chief election official, said he’d like to see the commission focus on keeping up with current technology on election equipment.

Critics dissected members of the commission in real time on Twitter, lambasting some as advocates for what they called voter suppression. Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, tweeted that public confidence in elections “is important — but commission is the main engine of undermining it!”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, criticized Trump for his remarks about the states not handing over voter data to the commission, writing on Twitter that the panel’s requests were “such federal overreach.”

The Democratic National Committee also sought to call attention to the commission’s work, staging a news conference ahead of the meeting.

Jason Kander, the former secretary of state of Missouri, said that Trump’s commission “started as a way to try and legitimize, to justify the biggest lie that a sitting president has ever told.”

Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.