By Mike DeBonis
WASHINGTON - In a private meeting with congressional Republicans this week, Vice President Mike Pence vowed that the Trump administration would pursue a wide-ranging probe of voting rolls in the United States to examine whether millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election as President Trump has charged.
“What I can tell you is that I would anticipate that the administration is going to initiate a full evaluation of voting rolls in the country, the overall integrity of our voting system in the wake of this past election,” Pence told Republican lawmakers during a question-and-answer session at their annual policy retreat in Philadelphia this week.
The vice president’s comments, captured in a recording obtained by The Post, give the clearest picture yet of how the Trump administration intends to investigate whether 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election, an unsupported claim President Donald Trump has made.
In the recording, Pence invoked a Pew Research study that Trump has falsely claimed shows widespread voter fraud.
“Just because so many Americans share the concern that you have, I have, the president certainly has about people being registered in multiple states,” Pence added. “You can anticipate that we will be looking for ways to work with you, to simply dig into it, to follow the facts, to see where the facts go. That one-person, one-vote principle is at the very heart of this republic and our democratic institutions, and it must be defended.”
Recordings of closed sessions at the Republican policy retreat here were sent late Thursday to The Washington Post and several other news outlets from an anonymous email address. Details of the Pence session were first reported by the Guardian newspaper.
Aides to House GOP leaders declined to comment on the recordings or their authenticity, but the contents match descriptions of the meetings gathered by Post reporters. The lawmakers were introduced by name before they spoke, and The Post spoke with other people in the room who confirmed speakers’ identities.
Pence spokesman Marc Lotter neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of the quotes when reached Friday. “We’re not going to comment on private conversations with members of Congress,” he said.
Pence was responding to a question from Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, R, who complained about his own alleged experiences with voter fraud in his district. Brooks offered to help Trump investigate such claims from his perch in Congress, saying: “I pledge to support you in any way I can.”
“In my first election in 1982, Democrats rigged about 25 percent of the voting machines to vote for everyone on the ballot but me,” Brooks said. “That’s 1,145 machines. The whole state was Democrat. Nothing was done to fix it.”
Brooks also pointed to a court decision in September barring three states, including Alabama, from demanding voter identification in mail-in federal voter registration forms.
“I perceive that the president may be spot-on, as he is identifying this voter fraud problem although he can’t really itemize the magnitude,” Brooks said.
He added: “What can we do to help you, the White House, the president - first have a requirement that only American citizens can vote in federal elections, and second that only those persons who are registered to vote are the ones who actually vote on election day.”
Only U.S. citizens can legally vote in federal elections.
A spokeswoman from Brooks’s office confirmed the accuracy of his remarks.
It is unclear how many of Brooks’s Republican colleagues feel the same way - House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has said, for example, that he doesn’t “see the evidence” of fraud.
Audio of the meeting shows some conservative lawmakers empathizing with some of Trump’s biggest concerns since being elected - such as whether the intelligence community is attempting to undermine his legitimacy because of its conclusions that Russia intervened to help him win the presidency; and the president’s unproven charges that 3 million to 5 million people illegally voted in the election to help Democrats.
Many analysts and fact-checkers say that such widespread voter fraud could not have occurred in the 2016 election.
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, R, one of fiercest critics of the Obama administration for the September 2012 attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, wondered about whether the Trump administration could trust what is being told to it by the intelligence community.
“There are problems in intel,” Gohmert said. “But you have got to help the president find the problems because they have lied to Republicans in Congress. We can’t have that happen again.”
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., brought up concerns about political targeting at the IRS. Many Republicans would like to see the removal of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, whom they accuse of obstructing their probe into targeting of conservative groups by the tax-collecting agency.
“Do you support getting a new IRS Commissioner in there? Does the president? Because this is a very troubled agency, and this guy has stonewalled every step of the way. So my plea to you is get his resignation and lets start anew,” the lawmaker said.
“I’ll carry that back. I can tell you that I and certainly all of us were concerned about the political targeting,” Pence replied.
Another Republican, Gary Palmer, Ala., wanted assurances that the administration will have the backs of those lawmakers who may be nervous about the unpredictable and new direction Trump is taking.
“The short answer is, you bet. . . . I promise you the president is going to be on the road in your states and in your districts. I’m going to be on the road in your states and your districts,” Pence said.