WASHINGTON (NBC News) — President Donald Trump abruptly shut down his signature voter fraud commission on Wednesday and instead kicked the issue to the Department of Homeland Security.
The announcement comes just a week after Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has been running the commission’s day-to-day operations in place of Vice President Mike Pence, its official chairman, said the panel would meet later this month.
Trump formed the commission last May to examine the U.S. electoral system for evidence of large-scale voter fraud. He has claimed, without evidence, that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election.
The commission, formally called the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, has been bedeviled by internal dissension, threats of litigation and the refusal of some states to provide information. Its last known meeting was Sept. 12.
“Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud, many states have refused to provide the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with basic information relevant to its inquiry,” Trump said in a brief statement early Wednesday evening.
“Rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense, today I signed an executive order to dissolve the Commission, and have asked the Department of Homeland Security to review these issues and determine next courses of action.”
Homeland Security has already been investigating allegations of Russian tampering with voter registration systems in at least 20 states.
From the beginning, the commission has been heavily criticized for seeking massive amounts of voter data from every state. Many states have refused to cooperate.
The panel has been sued by civil liberties and privacy rights advocates, including one of its own members, and multiple ethics watchdogs have filed complaints. David Dunn, a Democratic member of the panel, died in October, leaving the group with seven Republicans and four Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, a federal watchdog agency, said last year that it would investigate the commission’s funding, internal operations and handling of tens of millions of sensitive voter files. Trump’s statement gave no indication what could happen to the sensitive voter files in the commission’s possession, which the GAO said number in the tens of millions.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York called the commission “a front to suppress the vote” and to “perpetrate dangerous and baseless claims” on Wednesday night.
“This shows that ill-founded proposals that just appeal to a narrow group of people won’t work, and we hope they’ll learn this lesson elsewhere,” Schumer said on Twitter.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit advocacy group, also welcomed the news, calling the commission “a vehicle launched for the sole purpose of laying the groundwork to promote voter suppression policies on a national scale.”
The Lawyer’s Committee brought one of the lawsuits against the commission last year. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the commission in December to stop withholding documents from the panel’s Democratic members.
“Today’s executive order disbanding the commission is a victory for those who are concerned about ensuring access to the ballot box across the country,” Clarke told NBC News.