WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday questioned the motives of states that have refused to comply with his voter fraud commission's request for extensive personal voter information, suggesting they have something to hide.
"One has to wonder what they're worried about," Trump told the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He said, "There's something, there always is."
The meeting comes amid outrage over the commission's request to each state for extensive personal voter information, including voter names, voting histories and party affiliations. Aides to commission chair Mike Pence have said they only asked for information that was already publicly available. But numerous states have rebuffed the request, arguing that complying would legitimize the unproven idea that voter fraud is widespread.
Critics see the commission as part of a conservative campaign to strip minority voters and poor people from the voter rolls, and to justify unfounded claims made by a president who was angry about losing the popular vote. They also wonder why the White House appears more concerned with unproven allegations of large-scale voter fraud than the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign.
But Trump said the commission would address serious concerns he heard from voters again and again.
"Throughout the campaign and even after, people would come up to me and express concerns about voter inconsistencies and voter irregularities which they saw, in some cases having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states," Trump said, adding: "All public officials have a profound responsibility to protect the integrity of the vote."
The commission's request has also sparked numerous lawsuits as well as complaints that the commission violated open meeting rules when it conducted its first formal session over the phone.
Trump convened the commission after claiming on Twitter and in meetings with lawmakers that voter fraud cost him the 2016 popular vote, despite past studies showing voter fraud is exceedingly rare.
"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," he tweeted in November, several weeks after his electoral victory. He also alleged at the time, without evidence, that there had been "serious voter fraud" in California, New Hampshire and Virginia and complained that the media wasn't covering it.
Trump continued to make the debunked claim after his inauguration, telling a group of bipartisan congressional leaders days after he took office that he would have won the popular vote if 3 million to 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally hadn't voted.
While there have been isolated cases of people voting illegally, there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would have impacted the election results. Trump won the Electoral College by a comfortable margin, but Democratic rival Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes.
The commission will also examine ways to protect voting systems from foreign interference, according to Pence aides. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government mounted a campaign to help elect Trump, hacking the Democratic National Committee and a Hillary Clinton campaign aide's emails and spreading propaganda through fake news stories and social media bots.
But Trump has repeatedly undermined their findings by voicing skepticism about Russia's role.
Trevor Potter, the president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former Republican chair of the Federal Election Commission, accused the bipartisan commission of being "based on false charges of voter fraud that have already been repeatedly disproven."
"Our elections face serious concerns including attempted foreign cyber intrusions, partisan motivated voter suppression, and the desperate need for modernization of our election administration and voting technology," he said. "Rather than address these pressing issues in a bipartisan manner, this presidential commission already seems to be blindly focused on manufacturing evidence to support its own foregone conclusions to further partisan objectives."
Pence stressed as he opened the meeting that the panel was "nonpartisan" and said it would be providing a service to all Americans.
"This commission had no preconceived notions or pre-ordained results," he said. "We're fact-finders."
Wednesday's meeting was largely organizational, with the discussion focusing on introductions, outlining the group's mission, and how it will proceed moving forward.