By Dustin Volz and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's election security unit has no immediate plans to probe allegations of electoral fraud, despite President Donald Trump's announcement this week he was giving the issue to the agency, according to administration officials.
Trump said on Wednesday that he had asked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to review voter fraud and determine appropriate courses of action, as he announced he was disbanding a presidential commission dedicated to the matter.
Multiple officials and sources familiar with the matter said they were unaware of plans within DHS, a sprawling agency responsible for a wide array of national security issues, to investigate voter fraud.
State and federal officials said that having DHS pursue voter fraud allegations would undermine efforts to protect voting systems from cyber attacks, a current DHS priority.
Asked whether the DHS has immediate plans to pursue voter fraud issues, agency spokesman Tyler Houlton said it "continues to work in support of state governments who are responsible for administering elections, with efforts focused on securing elections against those who seek to undermine the election system or its integrity."
Trump has said repeatedly, without providing evidence, that fraud may have accounted for his loss by nearly 3 million votes in the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Trump, a Republican, won the state-by-state electoral college vote which decides the winner of U.S. presidential elections.
Any further delay in investigating voter fraud is likely to further weaken Trump's allegations. But investigating voter fraud might complicate efforts by DHS to help states prevent cyber attacks on the 2018 midterm elections.
The commission, which Democrats and voting rights experts have attacked as meritless, was established in May last year but its work stalled when many states refused its request for data about registered voters.
Given almost no advance notice, DHS officials scrambled on Wednesday night to inform stakeholders that Trump's mandate would not interfere with efforts to help state and local election officials bolster their voting infrastructure against potential cyber attacks, according to a senior U.S. official.
The order to investigate claims of voter fraud might damage cooperation with states on cyber security, which officials see as a threat heading into the midterms in November.
States have been increasingly eager to work with the Trump administration on cyber issues but many have criticized the voter fraud initiative, saying it is groundless and distracts from legitimate issues, like hacking threats.
"If (DHS) were to start investigating these non-existent voter fraud claims, that would be very problematic," said Edgardo Cortes, Virginia's chief election official, who rejected the commission's request last year for data about voters registered in Virginia. Cortes said he would also turn down DHS if it asked for the same data.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Thursday that the Trump administration was sending "preliminary findings" to DHS, which would "make determinations on the best way forward from that point."
DHS spokesman Houlton added that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a former co-chairman of the White House's now-disbanded election integrity commission, was not advising DHS.
Kobach told news media this week that he expected officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch within DHS, to continue the work of the commission. Kobach's office did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz and Julia Harte; Editing by Alistair Bell)