WASHINGTON ― Republican Senate leaders on Tuesday appeared too afraid to call out President Donald Trump’s lie that he lost the popular vote because 3 million to 5 million “illegals” voted in the election, finding new ways to dodge questions about whether they agreed with the new head of their party.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wouldn’t dispute Trump’s statement, which Trump made in a private meeting with congressional leaders Monday evening.
Trump has repeatedly said he lost the popular vote due to voter fraud, but there is no evidence of this, nor any evidence that millions of undocumented immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes.
Asked point-blank if Trump’s claim was true, McConnell refused to say.
“I can just tell you that on the whole issue of election fraud, which our Democratic colleagues always argue is just fiction: There are people literally in jail in Kentucky for this kind of activity,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.
“It does occur ― there are always arguments on both sides about how much, how frequent, all the rest,” he continued. “Most states have done a better job on this front, but the notion that election fraud is a fiction is not true.”
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, third-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, also wouldn’t call Trump’s statement a lie.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said when asked if he agreed that as much at 5 million voted illegally. “I don’t know what that number is, and I guess you’ll have to get that info from [Trump].”
Thune pointed to McConnell’s answer, noting that there are always some irregularities that go on in an election. “How you quantify that, I’m not sure. But [Trump] must have his methodologies.”
Pressed on if he thought millions committed voter fraud, Thune said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Thune also dismissed the idea that Trump’s repeated false claims about voter fraud and crowd sizes would take away from Republicans’ work on policy issues.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed Tuesday that the president does believe millions voted illegally, but offered no evidence to support that view.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) offered a more direct answer than his colleagues when asked about the president’s comments.
“Look, I haven’t seen evidence of that but I know in Colorado we have tried to do everything we can to root it out,” he said, but added “fraud happens, we have to eliminate it.”
Asked if Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the popular vote and peddling in inaccurate information hurts the democracy, Gardner said the public is interested in different issues.
“I think what the American people are more interested in is that we have a Supreme Court justice that we can fill the court with who’s going to do their best as a guardian of the constitution,” he said. “I think they’re concerned about tax reform; they’re concerned about health care reform.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters he’s “seen no evidence to that effect” when asked about Trump’s comments.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was one of the only Republican lawmakers to give a real denunciation of Trump’s voter fraud claims on Tuesday.
“I would urge the president to knock this off; this is the greatest democracy on earth, we’re the leader of the free world, and people are going to start doubting you as a person if you keep making accusations against our electoral system without justification,” Graham told CNN in an interview. “This is going to erode his ability to govern this country if he does not stop it.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also dismissed the president’s erroneous assertion Tuesday, adding that he learned to disregard some of Trump’s most outrageous comments “a long time ago.”
“I obviously have seen no evidence of illegal voting,” McCain told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Honestly, I’ve stopped reacting to everything that the president has stated and tried to work on the issues and the people that he’s going to surround himself with.”
Senate Democrats railed against Republicans for not forcefully rebuking Trump.
“When these falsehoods are told, our Republican colleagues have an obligation to reject them, not to skirt around them,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
It remained unclear heading into Tuesday if anyone had challenged Trump when he told congressional leaders during the Monday night meeting that millions voted illegally, but Schumer said he “addressed” it.
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Trump “that’s not true” when he said it.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who joined Schumer at Democrats’ leadership press conference, said Trump’s statement should worry everyone.
“What I fear about that statement ... is that when Trump talks about 3 to 5 million people voting illegally, he is sending a message to every Republican governor in this country to go forward with voter suppression,” Sanders said.