WASHINGTON (AP) — The top three Senate Republicans refused on Tuesday to disavow President Donald Trump's false claim that millions of illegally cast ballots cost him the popular vote.
The comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his top lieutenants suggested that some leading Republicans would rather follow Trump into the realm of "alternative facts" than confront the new chief executive.
McConnell and other top Republicans faced questions after Trump told a group of congressional leaders at the White House Monday night that he would have won the popular vote but for 3 million to 5 million ballots cast by immigrants in the country illegally. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes and there is no indication that significant numbers of voters cast illegal ballots for either candidate.
"It does occur," McConnell told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday on the issue of election fraud. "There are always arguments on both sides about how much, how frequent and all the rest. ... The notion that election fraud is a fiction is not true."
McConnell, R-Ky., made his comments at the same time Trump's spokesman, in a briefing at the White House, stuck firmly to Trump's claim about illegal voting in the November election, though without providing any evidence to back it up. "He believes what he believes, based on the information he was provided," said press secretary Sean Spicer, without detailing that information.
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, also passed up a chance to dispute Trump's claim Tuesday, saying "I'm not going to re-litigate that. It's time to move on."
And the No. 3 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, said he didn't know whether 3 million to 5 million votes were cast fraudulently, which would be larger than the population of all but the biggest U.S. cities, and did not happen.
"There's always a certain amount of irregularity that goes on in elections, some places perhaps more so than others. How you quantify that I'm not sure, but he must have his methodology," Thune said.
Not all Republicans were unwilling to dispute Trump.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters on the illegal voting claim: "I've seen no evidence to that effect and I've made that very, very clear," though he declined to get drawn into further comment.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of Trump's claims, "Do I believe it? I have no evidence of it." But McCain, who did not support Trump for president, demurred when asked whether Trump should stop uttering falsehoods.
"I did not support the president of the United States in the election so I don't really have any place where I tell him what he should do," McCain said.
The varied reactions illustrated a dilemma for GOP lawmakers faced with life under a new president with a strained relationship with the truth. With his presidency in its early days, many Republicans seem to see little upside in contradicting Trump, who remains popular with many GOP base voters despite low national approval ratings for an incoming president.
But as they confront a packed legislative agenda in a new era of GOP governance, other Republicans are expressing frustration at the prospect of being repeatedly distracted by false claims from their president.
"The blame game is silly and weird," said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who described Trump's first few days in office as a "mixed bag" and "a rocky start" based on the telephone calls he's getting from constituents.
Trump should "get to the serious business of governing," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. "The election is over."
The election may be over, but Trump and his administration have stuck with a strategy that he once described as "truthful hyperbole." In public appearances and private meetings, the president has repeated several falsehoods from his campaign and transition period. Campaign aide Kellyanne Conway described the inaccurate remarks as "alternative facts" in a Sunday interview with NBC's "Meet the Press."
Critics simply call them lies.
The claim about illegal voting followed an effort by Trump to blame strained relations with the intelligence community on "dishonest" journalists during a Saturday visit to CIA headquarters, despite repeated remarks during his transition period questioning the integrity of the country's intelligence services. He also wildly overstated the number of people who gathered on the National Mall as he took the oath of office.
Yet even some top Democrats were unsure whether Trump would pay a political price for his false statements.
"It's the Trump style," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. When asked whether the remarks would hurt Trump with voters, he replied: "It hasn't yet."
And to Trump's many Capitol Hill supporters, the story is simpler: Trump is off to a great start, and the media are the ones to blame.
"What it shows is we have a liberal press that is continuing to play into the Democrat playbook, which is in this case anything they can do to delegitimize the election of this presidency and try to put a damper on those of us who are ecstatic at his election," said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Richard Lardner contributed to this report.