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In private meeting, Pence vows ‘full evaluation of voting rolls’ over claims of fraud

Vice President Pence's Q&A featured questions from Reps. Louie Gohmert (Texas), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Ron DeSantis (Fla.), Gary Palmer (Ala.), Pete Olson (Texas) and Ted Yoho (Fla.) during a Republican retreat in Philadelphia. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post, Photo: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/Obtained by The Washington Post)

In a private meeting with congressional Republicans this week, Vice President Pence vowed that the Trump administration would pursue a wide-ranging probe of voting rolls in the United States to examine whether millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election as President Trump has charged.

“What I can tell you is that I would anticipate that the administration is going to initiate a full evaluation of voting rolls in the country, the overall integrity of our voting system in the wake of this past election,” Pence told Republican lawmakers during a question-and-answer session at their annual policy retreat in Philadelphia this week.

The vice president’s comments, captured in a recording obtained by The Washington Post, give the clearest indication yet of how the Trump administration intends to investigate whether 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 general election, an unsupported claim Trump has made.

In the recording, Pence invoked a study that Trump has falsely claimed shows widespread voter fraud.

“Just because so many Americans share the concern that you have, I have, the president certainly has about people being registered in multiple states,” Pence added. “You can anticipate that we will be looking for ways to work with you, to simply dig into it, to follow the facts, to see where the facts go. That one-person, one-vote principle is at the very heart of this republic and our democratic institutions, and it must be defended.”

The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee explains why White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s claims about voter fraud in the presidential election don’t add up. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Recordings of closed sessions at the Republican policy retreat were sent late Thursday to The Post and several other news outlets from an anonymous email address. Details of the Pence session were first reported by the Guardian newspaper.

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Aides to House GOP leaders declined to comment on the recordings or their authenticity, but the contents match descriptions of the meetings gathered by Post reporters. The lawmakers were introduced by name before they spoke, and The Post spoke with other people in the room who confirmed the speakers’ identities.

Pence spokesman Marc Lotter neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of the quotes when reached Friday. “We’re not going to comment on private conversations with members of Congress,” he said.

Pence was responding to a question from Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.), who complained about what he said were his own experiences with voter fraud in his district. Brooks offered to help Trump investigate such claims from his perch in Congress, saying, “I pledge to support you in any way I can.”

President Trump sat down for his first interview at the White House with ABC News on Jan. 25. Here's what happened. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Brooks pointed to a court decision in September barring three states, including Alabama, from demanding voter identification in mail-in federal voter registration forms. That decision, he said, "opened a huge floodgate for illegals and others to register to vote."

“I perceive that the president may be spot on, as he is identifying this voter fraud problem, although he can’t really itemize the magnitude,” Brooks said. “What can we do to help you, the White House, the president — first, have a requirement that only American citizens can vote in federal elections, and, second, that only those persons who are registered to vote are the ones who actually vote on Election Day?” he asked.

A spokeswoman from Brooks’s office confirmed the accuracy of his remarks.

Noncitizens are already prohibited from voting in federal elections, and other independent groups have rejected suggestions of the widespread voter fraud alleged by Trump.

Earlier this week, the National Association of Secretaries of State released a statement saying that it is “not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump.”

Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, who oversees elections in that state, said that while there are some voting irregularities, he has seen no evidence of widespread voter fraud and does not believe Trump would find a systemic problem if he were to investigate the rolls in Ohio.

But Husted said that Trump could help the states by giving them access to certain government databases to check for illegal registrants. Ohio, he said, did a review four years ago and is conducting a review of the 2016 election now.

“Easy to vote, hard to cheat,” Husted tweeted two days ago.

Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said Friday that any plans to conduct a national investigation of voter fraud “creates serious risks . . . to the integrity of our democracy.”

“There is a real risk that this is just an excuse to crack down on voting nationwide,” she said.

The 2012 Pew Center on the States study that Trump and Pence have cited as showing widespread voter fraud concluded that there were problems with inaccurate voter registrations, deceased voters still on the rolls, and people registered in more than one state.

But David Becker, the main author of the Pew report, tweeted this week that the "report made no findings re: voter fraud."

As for being registered in two states, that appears to be a problem that affected several people close to Trump.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest White House advisers, is registered to vote in New Jersey and New York. White House press secretary Sean Spicer is on the rolls in Virginia and his home state of Rhode Island. Chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, first daughter Tiffany Trump and treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin all were registered in two states during the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, nine major investigations conducted over the past 10 years have turned up no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

“Voter fraud has been studied by experts of all political stripes and they agree that widespread fraud does not happen in American elections,” said Gerry Hebert, director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center.

In Philadelphia, Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tex.), one of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration for the September 2012 attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, wondered whether the Trump administration could trust what it is being told by the intelligence community.

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“There are problems in intel,” Gohmert said. “But you have got to help the president find the problems because they have lied to Republicans in Congress. We can’t have that happen again.”

Rep. Ron DeSantis (Fla.) said he would like to see the removal of Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen, who has been accused of obstructing an IRS probe into the targeting of conservative groups.

“My plea to you is, get his resignation and let’s start anew,” the lawmaker said.

“I’ll carry that back. I can tell you that I and certainly all of us were concerned about the political targeting,” Pence replied.

Rep. Gary Palmer (Ala.) wanted assurances that the administration would have the backs of those lawmakers who may be nervous about the new and unpredictable direction Trump is taking.

“The short answer is, you bet,” Pence said. “I promise you the president is going to be on the road in your states and in your districts. I’m going to be on the road in your states and your districts.”

Robert Costa, Juliet Eilperin, Paul Kane and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.

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