Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012.
Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

Trump narrows the focus of his voter-fraud conspiracy theory

A couple of weeks ago, for reasons no one at the White House has been able to explain, Donald Trump railed against widespread voter fraud that appears to exist only in his mind. It came as part of a larger push from the president to convince people that he secretly won the popular vote when one excludes the millions of illegally cast ballots – despite the fact that literally no one has any proof to substantiate this ridiculous claim.

On Thursday, Jan. 26, Trump was supposed to issue a new directive, launching a formal investigation into the imaginary problem, but a few hours before the White House ceremony, the event was abruptly cancelled without explanation. Soon after, Team Trump moved away from the issue altogether.

Last week, a senior administration official told CNN that the voter-fraud investigation "is no longer a top priority."

But when Trump sat down with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly for an interview that aired last night, it became clear that the issue hasn't completely faded.

O'REILLY: Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things you can't back up factually, and as the president, if you say, for example, that there are 3 million illegal aliens who voted, and then you don't have the data to back it up, some people are going to say, that's irresponsible for a president to say that, is there any validity to it?

TRUMP: Well, many people have come out and said I am right, you know that.... A lot of people have come out and said that I am correct.

That's not how reality works. One cannot make something up and then point to others who choose to believe the manufactured nonsense as proof of the lie's validity.

More important is the fact that the president is apparently moving the goalposts a bit. From the transcript:

TRUMP: Let me just tell you -- let me just tell you, and it doesn't have to do with the vote, although the end result. It has to due with the registration. And when you look at the registration and you see dead people that have voted, when you see people that are registered in two states, that have voted in two states, when you see other things, when you see illegals, people that are not citizens and they are on the registration roles. Look, Bill, we can be babies, but you take a look at the registration, you have illegals, you have dead people, you have this, it's really a bad situation, it's really bad. [...]

O'REILLY: Yes, but the data has to show that 3 million illegals voted.

TRUMP: Look, forget that, forget all of that, just take a look at the registration and we're going to do it. And I'm going to set up a commission to be headed by Vice President Mike Pence, and we're going to look at it very, very carefully.

It's a curious approach. For months, Trump has said between 3 million and 5 million illegal ballots were cast, costing him the popular vote. That's bonkers, of course, but the president has pushed this line, unprompted, on multiple occasions.

As of last night's interview, however, we're apparently supposed to "forget all of that" -- because he says so -- and instead focus on problems with voter registration.

And while that might be a credible area of interest, Trump is pursuing this in a way that's entirely incoherent.

In reality, there is ample evidence that there are flaws in the voter-registration system -- including the fact that some states and municipalities are slow to update old records. As a now-famous Pew Center report documented in 2012, roughly 1.8 million deceased people were still on voter registration rolls nationwide and should be removed. The need for a systemic upgrade makes sense.

Which is more than can be said about the confused president's rhetoric. Trump said when we look at the registration system, we see votes cast by people who are supposed to be dead, but there's literally no evidence to back that up. He said we also find "people [who] are registered in two states," which is apparently common among Trump's White House aides, but which isn't illegal.

He also pointed to people who have "voted in two states," which, once again, is simply unsupported by the evidence.

As for the White House's plans, what was supposed to be an "investigation" will apparently now be a "commission," led by the vice president. Whether Trump just made this up on the fly is unclear -- Pence appeared on four Sunday shows, and made no reference to leading a new commission on voter registrations -- and we don't yet know whether such a panel will ever exist in reality.

Nevertheless, at least for now, the president's bizarre posture on an imaginary problem appears to be evolving.