WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday elevated an unfounded conspiracy theory about last fall’s campaign to its highest level yet, saying that he will ask for a “major investigation” into his repeated claims that up to 5 million illegal immigrants voted in the election.
The head-spinning sequence had all the hallmarks that the country witnessed throughout his campaign: First came an early morning tweet calling for the investigation. It was immediately clear his claim had no basis in fact. His demand for an investigation then sent many in the political class — the media, and political supporters and detractors — into a state of astonishment.
The statements by Trump, made in his fifth day in office, again strained the credibility of an institution that has the world’s biggest megaphone and can guide global financial markets and world diplomacy.
Since assuming office Friday, Trump has appeared to be obsessed with media estimates of the crowd size at his inauguration, has issued false claims about his tumultuous relationship with the US intelligence community, and has promoted what a senior adviser called “alternative facts.” On Tuesday evening, he impulsively threatened on Twitter to send “the Feds’’ into Chicago shortly after Fox News aired a segment on violence in the city.
“Whether it’s on Election Day or Inauguration Day, Donald Trump sees people who just aren’t there,” Senator Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, said in an interview. “He just seems more focused on small slights than the big issues. And so he is faced with the reality that there is absolutely no proof of widespread voter fraud during the presidential election, and he just won’t let it go. As a result, it calls into question his understanding of other, bigger, substantive issues.”
Fewer claims could be as damaging to US democracy than raising questions about the integrity of its elections. But through the medium of Twitter, Trump waded into the issue again with apparent nonchalance.
Shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, Trump posted: “I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and . . . even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!”
Later, in an interview with ABC News, Trump said: “Of those votes cast . . . none of them come to me. They would all be for the other side.”
Like his preoccupations with his crowd sizes and television ratings, his focus on the election is rooted in numbers that would measure his popularity. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million, but he won the states needed to secure the electoral college vote.
Studies have shown that ineligible voters do sometimes cast votes, but the studies have concluded that there is no widespread fraud.
“The notion that millions of people voted illegally two months ago, and nobody noticed, is preposterous on its face,” Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan policy institute The Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement.
And yet while Trump focuses on the unsubstantiated claim of fraud from illegal votes, he has not joined other politicians in calling for investigations into the Russian interference in the election — including the hacking of the Democratic National Committee — that US security officials have documented. Democrats seized on that disconnect Wednesday.
“He wants to investigate something that can clearly be proven to be false, but he resists any investigation of the Russian disruption of our election and any connection to his campaign,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Wednesday. “All we want is the truth for the American people. I, frankly, feel very sad about the president making this claim. I felt sorry for him. I prayed for him. But then I prayed for the United States of America.”
The National Association of Secretaries of State also pushed back against Trump’s claim.
“In the past . . . we found less than a thousand cases of voter irregularity, less than a couple hundred cases of voter fraud, and zero cases of voter suppression,” Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Trump supporter, said on CNN. He said that was “a small number,” given the 7 million registered voters in Ohio.
He also said that any federal investigation would be difficult, given that elections are run at the state level.
“I don’t think that federal involvement is important in this particular matter because the states run the elections,” Husted said. “We don’t want federal involvement in our elections; we want to keep this in the hands of the states — that’s where it should be.”
Trump himself has dismissed allegations of voter fraud when it was to his benefit to do so. In legal filings in November — while arguing against a recount demanded by Green Party candidate Jill Stein — his attorney Don McGahn wrote that there was nothing wrong with the election.
“All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake,” the filing read in response to a Michigan recount.
In Pennsylvania, another filing read: “On what basis does Stein seek to disenfranchise the voters of the Keystone state? None really. There is no evidence — or even any allegation — that any tampering with Pennsylvania’s voting systems actually occurred.”
During the White House briefing Wednesday afternoon, press secretary Sean Spicer sought to move the discussion away from whether fraud took place during the 2016 election, and instead to the possibility that some voter rolls might be outdated, with deceased residents still on them.
He also said that while Trump’s lawyers argued that no fraud took place in some of the states he competed in, there could have been more widespread irregularities in more populous states like New York and California. Those states, of course, gave Hillary Clinton a dominant lead in the national popular vote. She won by 1.7 million votes in New York and 4.2 million votes in California.
“When you look at where a lot of these issues could have occurred, in bigger states, that’s where we’re going to look,” he said.
Despite Trump’s statement for a “major investigation” on Twitter, Spicer did not say whether there would be a federal investigation, saying further announcements would be made this week. He suggested a task force could be one option.
Lies and the twisting of facts are not unknown in the history of the nation’s highest office. False information has, of course, led to consequential decisions, even war. An official coverup of malfeasance in the Watergate scandal led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
What is new with Trump is that he has repeatedly returned to debunked claims. It amounts to a constant chipping away at credibility on issues of little consequence, with assertions that can easily be disproved. In Washington and in capitals around the world, the implications are worrisome.
If Trump is willing to peddle falsehoods about crowd sizes, after all, what happens when the stakes are greater? Will leaders distrust statements from the White House?
The front page of Liberation, a left-leaning newspaper in Paris, blared: “POST TRUTH” and said that Trump was perpetuating “lies, rumors, slanders” that have “brought political communication into an era of intoxication.”
British prime minister Theresa May, who was pressed several times Wednesday by members of Parliament to distance herself from Trump’s positions, will be visiting the White House on Friday, the first from a head of state.
With the world watching, the onus will be on Trump to ensure the credibility of the United States remains intact.