There is no benign explanation for President Trump’s false assertion that millions of people voted illegally in the last election. It is either a deliberate attempt to undermine faith in the democratic process, an exhortation to those who favor new restrictions on access to the ballot box or the worrisome trait of someone with immense power willing to make wild statements without any credible evidence. By repeating as president what he had said as a candidate, for whatever purpose, Trump is striking at the foundation of a democratic society. This is yet another example of Trump being willing to cast doubt on information, individuals or institutions that he believes threaten his legitimacy, challenge his authority or question his actions — from attacks on “phony polls” or the “dishonest media” to assertions now of vast voter fraud. This is not a debate about the size of the crowd at last week’s presidential inauguration. That is a piddling controversy compared with his claim that the election system overseen by the states is somehow riddled with fraud. Trump is chipping away at a shared public confidence in a system that is fundamental to a representative government for no apparent reason other than that he’s bothered by the fact that, although duly elected and now in the White House, he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes.
Trump has virtually no elected allies in this assault on the election system. A smattering of Republicans might be willing to say that what Trump claims is at least plausible, as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) did on MSNBC on Tuesday. But the vast majority of those in Trump’s party share the view of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who told reporters Tuesday that he has seen no evidence to buttress what Trump said at a meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership Monday at the White House
Pelted on Tuesday with questions about Trump’s claim, White House press secretary Sean Spicer danced his way through the daily briefing. Asked for evidence to back up what Trump said, Spicer responded by saying simply that this is something the president has long believed. Tellingly, Spicer, the former chief strategist at the Republican National Committee, would not put his own credibility on the line by saying he believed what his boss had said. “What does it mean for democracy?” CNN’s Jeff Zeleny asked Spicer. “It means I’ve answered your question,” Spicer responded, then moved to another reporter.