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Analysis

Donald Trump Tells His Voter Fraud Panel: Find Me 'Something’

After his henchmen droned on about how the commission has no preconceived notions, Trump cut through the cant and commanded them to bring him the dirt.

July 20, 2017

Cross-posted from The Daily Beast

Give Pres­id­ent Trump credit. He’s inven­ted a new kind of polit­ical gaffe. It was on display at the first meet­ing of the voter fraud commis­sion held at the White House today, when he blur­ted out a real motive for the whole sorry exer­cise: to find “some­thing.”

Of course, the whole notion of a gaffe is some­what quaint at this point. The diction­ary says that a gaffe is a “social or diplo­matic blun­der.” Spill­ing the soup on the host­ess, mispro­noun­cing a name. Such missteps involved breached decorum. Over the years, in the polit­ical world, it has come to mean a state­ment by a public figure that inad­vert­ently causes a scan­dal or contro­versy. A faux pas, a blooper.

The journ­al­ist Michael Kins­ley famously explained that a gaffe is when a politi­cian acci­dent­ally tells the truth. Ever since connois­seurs have known this as a “Kins­ley Gaffe.”

Along comes Trump. A Trump Gaffe is when he tells the truth about his own malevol­ent motive for doing something—and thus under­mines the spin of his aides and allies. That’s not to be confused with other stumbles, say, start­ing World War III. (That would be worse than a gaffe.) But it tells us some­thing about Trump nonethe­less.

Examples abound. Take the firing of Federal Bureau of Invest­ig­a­tions director James Comey. Every­one knew it would be scan­dal­ous if the pres­id­ent axed Comey because he was prob­ing the Trump campaign and its ties to Russi­a’s polit­ical espi­on­age. So the White House insistedhe had acted only on the recom­mend­a­tion of the deputy attor­ney general, who lashed Comey for his conduct of the Hillary Clin­ton email invest­ig­a­tion. Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence said Russia had noth­ing to do with the firing. “That was not what this was about,” he claimed.

Then, of course, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt, “In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Demo­crats for having lost an elec­tion that they should have won.’” Oops!

That same week, Trump shared highly clas­si­fied intel­li­gence with Russi­a’s foreign minis­ter in the Oval Office. H.R. McMas­ter, his widely respec­ted national secur­ity adviser, grimly told cameras, “This story is false.” Within days, another Trump Gaffe: “As Pres­id­ent, I wanted to share [inform­a­tion] with Russia… which I have the abso­lute right to do.”

Trump’s compuls­ive confes­sions can be espe­cially hard on the lawyers. When the White House rushed out its exec­ut­ive order banning travel from several Muslim-major­ity coun­tries, its defend­ers insisted in court that reli­gion had noth­ing to do with it. In block­ing the move, judges cited Trump’s inter­view with the Chris­tian Broad­cast Network, in which he said Chris­tian refugees would get prior­ity. After offi­cials put out a new version, claim­ing it was merely a pause, Trump demol­ished their argu­ments. “People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am call­ing it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN.”

Wait, you might be think­ing: Trump as truth-teller? Does­n’t he lie repeatedly, brazenly? Aren’t his aides expec­ted to amplify those lies? (Think of Sean Spicer’s flop-sweat as he insisted that the crowd size at Trump’s inaug­ural set records.) What’s note­worthy is not Trump’s preci­sion about facts, but his compul­sion to blurt out his own rationale, the darker the better. It’s break­ing through the fourth wall, a theat­rical device famil­iar to view­ers of Richard III or House of Cards.

All of which brings us to today’s first meet­ing of the voting commis­sion. The panel was created to justify one of the more outland­ish pres­id­en­tial fibs: the idea that, “In addi­tion to winning the Elect­oral College in a land­slide, I won the popu­lar vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illeg­ally.” After Trump was roundly mocked for his claim of 3 to 5 million illegal voters, the panel was launched in an effort to try to rustle up some evid­ence—any evid­ence—­for the charge. It was given a bland name, the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Integ­rity. (Though Trump insisted on proudly call­ing it his “VOTER FRAUD panel.”)

The panel has had a slap­stick launch. In contrast to voting inquir­ies in other admin­is­tra­tions, with Noah’s Ark style balance between the parties, this one is led by two partisan Repub­lic­ans, Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence, and Kansas Secret­ary of State Kris Kobach, its vice chair and driv­ing force. Its members include several of the most contro­ver­sial purvey­ors of the urban myth of wide­spread fraud. Kobach’s ham-fisted bid for personal voting inform­a­tion about tens of millions of voters, includ­ing partial Social Secur­ity numbers, provoked a fierce back­lash, a flurry of lawsuits, and color­ful denun­ci­ation from Repub­lican and Demo­cratic offi­cials.

Today’s task, plainly, was to start fresh. At its tele­vised White House session, Mike Pence was on message. Three times through­out the day, he purred, using nearly identical word­ing. “We have no precon­ceived notions or preor­dained results.” Another commis­sioner chimed in. “I appre­ci­ate, in spite of some of the media reports I’ve seen, that the commis­sion has no precon­ceived results.”

Time for a Trump Gaffe, this time in his open­ing remarks. No precon­ceived results? The goal of the panel, he explained in his remarks, was to find something—­some evid­ence of miscon­duct. He was plainly peeved that so many states had refused to offer up voters’ personal data. “If any state does not want to share this inform­a­tion, one has to wonder what they’re worried about. And I asked the Vice Pres­id­ent, I asked the commis­sion: What are they worried about? There’s some­thing. There always is.”

Hmm. “There’s some­thing. There always is.” Where have we heard that before?

The more cynic­al—or liter­ary—might remem­ber the instruc­tions the corrupt demagogue Willie Stark gave his hench­men in Robert Penn Warren’s clas­sic novel, All the King’s Men. Find some dirt on a judge, Stark told them. “There is always some­thing.”

“Maybe not on the judge.”

Stark replied: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corrup­tion and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always some­thing.”

So much for “no precon­ceived notions,” “elec­tion integ­rity,” and other mild reas­sur­ances.

Trump’s brief flare of candor spoke volumes. The purpose of the panel is not just to try to justify his laugh­able claims of millions of invis­ible illegal voters. It aims to stir fears, to lay the ground for new efforts to restrict voting. Trump’s claims, after all, are just a cartoon version of the ground­less argu­ments already used to justify restrict­ive voting laws. Late today Kobach told MSNBC that “we may never know” if Hillary Clin­ton won the popu­lar vote. Even the panel’s missteps can have harsh consequences. Already, we’re hear­ing reports from around the coun­try of voters canceling their regis­tra­tions because they do not want the White House to have their data.

So let’s set aside the comic relief, and recog­nize that an insi­di­ous assault on basic demo­cratic values is under­way. That’s no gaffe. That’s an outrage.

(Photo: Getty)