Trump stirs fear with voter fraud probe

President TrumpDonald John TrumpEx-ethics chief calls on Trump to end 'monstrous' migrant policies Laura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' US denies report of coalition airstrike on Syria MORE stirred bipartisan controversy on Wednesday by pledging to launch a “major investigation” into his baseless claim that widespread voter fraud cost him the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s assertion that as many as 3 million illegal ballots were cast has been disputed by news organizations, state attorneys general and academics who study voter fraud claims. Even Trump’s own legal team conceded last year that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the election, as part of a court challenge against a recount effort in three Midwestern states. 

Trump reiterated the charge in a Monday meeting with congressional leaders. After a reporter asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer Tuesday why Trump wouldn’t investigate whether such widespread voter fraud had occurred, Trump called for a “major investigation” in a Wednesday tweet.

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Trump repeated his call for an investigation in an ABC interview that aired Wednesday.

“None of ‘em come to me,” he said of the purported illegal votes.

The decision to forge ahead with the investigation shows that Trump is still bothered by the outcome of the popular vote, which he lost to Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThere are many unanswered questions about FBI culture FBI agent who sent anti-Trump texts offers to testify on Capitol Hill Giuliani wants 'full and complete' investigation into Russia probe's origins MORE by nearly 3 million votes, as he and his team regularly push back against perceived threats to his legitimacy as president. 

But civil rights groups are concerned it could serve as pretext for a crackdown on voting rights. Even his GOP supporters say the probe could serve as a distraction from his governing agenda.

Trump’s push could also cast a shadow over House and Senate Republicans’ joint retreat in Philadelphia, where the president is expected to speak Thursday. 

Republicans hope to use the conference to unite with Trump around a common agenda, but first they will need to overcome divisions on healthcare, trade and other policy areas. Trump’s focus on voter fraud could complicate that task.

Lawmakers were being peppered with questions about Trump’s claims a day before his arrival.

“I haven’t seen evidence of that effect,” said John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneMcConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' Graham jokes about Corker: GOP would have to be organized to be a cult Ernst, Fischer to square off for leadership post MORE (S.D.), the third-ranking Senate Republican.

“I view the election as history, and we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work for the American people.”

Trump’s claims have already been met with deep skepticism from members of Congress, who have so far provided him with little cover as he faces blowback over his claims.

“I’ve seen no evidence to that effect,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWhite House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies John Legend slams Paul Ryan for Father's Day tweet, demands end to family separation Trump faces Father’s Day pleas to end separations of migrant families MORE (R-Wis.) told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “I’ve made that very, very clear.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senator: Family separation policy 'inconsistent' with American values Trump’s trusted diplomat faces daunting task with North Korea Trump’s danger on North Korea? Raised expectations MORE (R-S.C.), who ran against Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, advised the president “to knock this off.” 

“This is going to erode his ability to govern this country if he does not stop it,” he told CNN. 

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), one of Trump’s earliest supporters, said in an interview with the network that he does not have any evidence to support Trump’s allegations.

“But I’ll say there are illegal votes cast and if we can tighten down we should do it.”

Spicer on Wednesday shed more light on how the probe will be conducted. 

He said the administration would likely assemble an independent investigative body to examine Trump’s debunked claims, as well as a wide range of other voting issues. 

“I think in terms of registration, where you’ve got folks that have been deceased or moved or registered in two counties,” he said. “This isn’t just about the 2016 election, this is about the integrity of our voting system.”

Spicer said the panel would likely focus on voting practices in big blue states like California and New York that Trump lost.

The investigative team would present its findings and make recommendations to the president and lawmakers, potentially setting off a push by the White House and Republicans for stricter voter identification laws.

“Maybe it is voter ID in states,” Spicer said. “But part of that is to understand the extent of the problem. We have to understand where the problem exists, how deep it goes, and then suggest some remedies for it. But I think to prejudge the process would sort of get in front of the whole need to have it.”

The new effort has provoked a furious response from Democrats, who denounced Trump’s allegations as a lie and warned that the probe could result in a push to pass voting measures that unfairly target minorities.

“Donald Trump is lying to the American people about undocumented people voting because he wants to set the stage for more voter suppression,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is running to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told The Hill. 

“Expect Trump and his henchmen to push restrictive photo ID, limit early voting and make it harder to register.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill are so confident that Trump is wrong that they quickly complied with his request for an investigation.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, and two other Democratic leaders, Reps. Robert Brady (Pa.) and James Clyburn (S.C.), said they would issue letters to the 102 chief election officials and attorneys general in every state asking for details on instances of voter fraud.

“President Trump wants a major investigation of voter fraud  —  well now he has one,” Cummings said. “He continues to be obsessed with false numbers and statistics, but these are not ‘alternative facts,’ and there is no evidence to support these claims.”

There have been dozens of voter fraud cases in past elections, but there is no proof of anything occurring on the level Trump has described. 

The Washington Post found only four confirmed voter fraud cases out of 135 million ballots cast in 2016. 

Going ahead with the probe could open a political Pandora’s box for the Trump White House. 

Multiple media reports have shown Trump’s younger daughter, Tiffany; senior counselor Stephen Bannon; and Treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin are all registered to vote in two states. 

It’s not illegal to be registered in multiple states, but Trump himself has called for people with multiple registrations to be included in the investigation. 

“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),” he wrote in his early Wednesday tweet. 

The last voter-fraud probe conducted by a Republican president did not end well. 

The Bush administration found itself embroiled in a major scandal in 2007 when it dismissed several U.S. attorneys who were the target of Republican complaints that they were lax in pursuing fraud investigations. 

Scott Wong contributed.