During his sole press conference as president-elect, on January 11, Donald Trump seemed to promise more favorable treatment for states that had voted for him in the election. “We focused very hard in those states and they really reciprocated,” he said. “And those states are gonna have a lot of jobs and they’re gonna have a lot of security. They’re going to have a lot of good news for their veterans.”
Already, on day 5 of his administration, there are signs of just how red and blue states—and more broadly, areas that voted for Trump as opposed to those that did not—might receive disparate treatment from the federal government.
During Wednesday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Trump’s false claim that millions of fraudulent votes cost him a victory in the popular vote. After that lie was ridiculed Tuesday, Trump tweeted early Wednesday morning that he would order a “major investigation” into voter fraud. But the claim is not just unsupported by any evidence—it was contradicted by his own campaign lawyers, who argued there was no evidence of fraud when Green Party nominee Jill Stein sued for a recount in some states. Why should anyone believe him now?
Spicer’s answer was stunning.
“There’s a lot of states that we didn’t compete in where that’s not necessarily the case,” he said. You look at California and New York, I’m not sure that those statements were—we didn’t look at those two states in particular … I think when you look at where a lot of places where a lot of these issues could have occurred in bigger states, that’s where I think we’re going to look.”
Here’s a shorter way to put that: Spicer is saying that Trump will target only states that voted Democratic for his investigation of fraud.
As my colleague Emma Green laid out yesterday in detail, there’s simply no basis for the claim of massive fraud. Activists who push the claim like to say that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but repeated investigations, over the course of years, have failed to produce any proof. When the George W. Bush administration spent five years looking for fraud in the 2000s, they came back with effectively nothing. This makes progressives look at warnings about voter fraud as just a pretext for voter suppression: Once the public is made to believe there’s widespread fraud, it will support strict voting laws that require photo ID to vote, restrict early voting, and more. Those laws happen to disproportionately affect minorities, students, the poor, and other demographics that vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
This is not just idle speculation. In North Carolina, the Republican-led government in 2013 passed a voting law that was described as the strictest in the nation. The law’s proponents argued that it was needed to avoid fraud, though they—like everyone else—could not provide evidence of widespread or systematic fraud. In July 2016, a federal court threw out most of the law, finding that it was deliberately designed to suppress the votes of black voters.
It’s hard to know what Trump’s own motivation for harping on the fraud issue might be. Given his easily bruised ego, the idea that he lost the popular vote fair and square seems to rankle him. But those around him have shown a penchant for pushing bogus claims of voter fraud. Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, then a U.S. attorney, infamously prosecuted civil-rights activists for voter fraud after they sought to help elderly black voters in Alabama to register to vote. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has been among the leading national proponents of the claim that there is major vote fraud, has met with Trump and says he is advising him to investigate fraud claims.*
Hearing Spicer say in a press briefing that an executive branch investigation would target only blue states offers some validation for the fear that talk of “voter fraud” is simply an excuse to suppress Democratic votes. It ought to go without saying that the idea that voter fraud is occurring only in Democratic states, or only among Democrats, is illogical. (In December, The Washington Post reported that there were only four prosecutions for voter fraud nationwide related to the general election. Three were of Republicans or Trump voters, while a fourth was of a poll worker.)
To be sure, no one knows what parts of a Trump administration statement to take literally. On Tuesday, when Trump’s lies about voter fraud came up, NPR’s Mara Liasson incredulously quizzed Spicer on why, if the president believed in such fraud, he hadn’t ordered an investigation. Spicer deflected: “Maybe we will.” Lo and behold, Trump then made policy via tweet a few hours later. When everything is this fluid, one never knows for sure what’s bluster and what’s real.
But targeting of blue states would fit not only with Trump’s vow during his press conference but also with his actions over the last pair of days. On Tuesday, he tweeted that he was liable to “send in the Feds” to Chicago, a heavily Democratic city, to deal with violence. On Wednesday, he signed an executive order cutting off funding to “sanctuary cities,” which do not cooperate with the federal government on immigration-law enforcement. Most of those cities are also heavily Democratic.
Every new administration tends to favor the states that voted for the president. Those are the states, for example, that tend to end up with appointees in powerful executive-branch seats where they can direct aid back to their home states. In 2009, the Associated Press found that Barack Obama had visited those states that he won, or nearly won, in 2008 more than red states.
But no administration makes a public announcement that it intends to boost the states that supported the president and disadvantage others. For the White House to propose a punitive policy targeted at states that did not vote for him, with the likely purpose of suppressing the votes of its Democrats, is even more stunning. At a time when presidents are typically speaking the language of unity, Trump is sticking to the strategy of division that helped him win the presidency—apparently in the hopes that it will help him win the presidency by greater margins in four years.
* This article originally identified Kris Kobach as Kansas attorney general. We regret the error.