Over the course of the last year or so, many Trump supporters have pointed to the string of unlikely victories that propelled him to the White House and argued that he was playing three-dimensional chess. I think the temptation to consider Trump a tactical genius should be avoided. For every political masterstroke, you could point to an inexplicable decision that dragged him down; for example, attacking Khizr Khan and his wife, and floating the idea that Ted Cruz’s dad was involved in the JFK assassination.
A better way of assessing Trump is that he sometimes has preternaturally good instincts when it comes to dealing with the media, even while he may not even be conscious of what he’s doing. Trump is hardly the most successful developer or businessman to come out of New York City, but he’s managed to get its pugilistic press to spend the last three decades arguing over his claims to greatness. Basically, Trump is Rain Man for trolling the media.
Looked at in this context, Trump’s call for an investigation about his reported claim that the votes of three to five million illegal immigrants cost him the popular vote could actually redound to his—and the GOP’s—benefit.
First, let’s be clear about the facts. There are about 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. (That seems to be a consensus figure, though immigration reform activists argue there’s evidence that the figure could be 20 million or more.) For Trump to have been denied a popular vote victory due to ineligible votes, that assumes at least three million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary, and a larger number of illegal immigrants voted overall. Assuming that illegal immigrants voted roughly in line with the broader Hispanic population, 20 to 30 percent of the total illegal votes would have gone to Trump. You’re looking at a lot more than 3 million illegal immigrants voting out of a total of 12 million or so. There is one very hotly debated academic study that suggests a million or more illegal immigrants likely voted in this election, but the possibility of millions of illegal immigrants voting given the strictures on voting that we do have in place seems absurd.
What’s also absurd is that broad swaths of the media have claimed that voter fraud “plainly doesn’t exist,” because it’s a convenient cudgel to use against Republicans and voter ID laws. (Note that the media suddenly decided voter fraud was a very serious problem the moment it was alleged Trump adviser Steve Bannon was voting at an address where he did not live.) The fact is that voter fraud does exist, and it can have serious consequences with far less than millions of votes. Al Franken was elected a senator by 312 votes in an election where 1,099 felons apparently voted illegally, for example. Two years later, Franken was the deciding vote on Obamacare.
In order for Trump to win the broader debate here, all he has to do is prove voter fraud is consequential. And by angrily and, yes, correctly, refuting Trump’s claims about illegal voters, the media may have fallen into a trap.
A political consultant once explained it to me this way: You always exaggerate the charges you make against your opponent, because you want to bait them into confirming the basis of the claim you’re making, as the particulars don’t really matter. Say you’re running for Congress and your opponent borrowed $1 million from his father to fund his campaign. You say he took $2 million. He’ll accuse you of dishonesty because he only took $1 million. But in debating the specifics, your opponent has personally confirmed the far more devastating charge that he’s a dilettante who owes his political career to his rich daddy.
Let’s say that Trump orders the Department of Justice or some other federal agency to review the problem of voter fraud. National Review columnist John Fund and Heritage Foundation legal scholar Hans von Spakovsky wrote an investigation would be “straightforward. The Department of Homeland Security should cooperate with states wanting to check the citizenship status of voters on their rolls. … The Justice Department should put pressure on, or sue, counties and states that refuse to clean up their rolls.” And let’s say such a review comes back with a credible estimate that only 250,000 illegal immigrants voted. (About 37 percent of illegal immigrants now live in states or jurisdictions where they can get drivers licenses, so predicting that about two percent of illegal immigrants are voting doesn’t seem crazy.) You can point to Trump’s claim and say, “Ah-ha! Your claim that millions voted was ridiculous, just like we said it was.”
But do you think most ordinary Americans, let alone Trump voters, would look at the fact that 250,000 illegal immigrants voted and not be troubled? Maybe it doesn’t even come close to accounting for Trump losing the popular vote, but Trump owes his electoral college victory to just 107,000 votes. It would be hard to continue arguing that voter fraud doesn’t represent a threat to the system.
Like I said, perhaps this is instinctual and Trump may not even know what he’s doing here. But a lot of Americans are tired of being called racist because they support voter ID laws and/or arguing that illegal immigration is a problem. If this gambit in anyway confirms that voter fraud is problem, it will go a long way toward advancing their cause in the face of a hostile media.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard