President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order chartering an investigation into alleged corruption in the American electoral system — an institution he has repeatedly smeared with baseless charges of mass voter fraud.
But as much or more than the initiative itself, the early criticism has been trained on its designated point man, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Opponents past and present responded with anger on Thursday as news of his involvement spread.
“Kris Kobach being named to run a commission on ‘voter integrity’ is like naming Bernie Madoff to run a commission on financial crimes,” Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant group, said in a statement. “His bigotry and radicalism have no place in our federal government. Any commission which Kobach leads has no integrity.”
Kobach, who consulted Trump during the transition, got his first taste of Washington during a stint as an immigration law adviser in the George W. Bush administration. In that role, he helped craft the the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a post-9/11 program that required additional layers of screening for people entering the US from countries — almost all in the Middle East — believed to be home to known terror suspects.
The controversial process was effectively retired by President Barack Obama’s DHS in 2011. NSEERS was briefly floated late last year as a potential framework for executing candidate Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. The White House eventually settled on a more targeted ban on travelers from certain majority-Muslim countries and refugees from Sryia, although the federal courts have hit pause on it.
Over the last decade, Kobach has emerged as one of the country’s most influential immigration hawks and a crusader for stricter voter identification laws. He has clashed repeatedly with voting rights groups and is currently stuck in a contentious court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit claiming his office sought to turn back Kansas voters in violation the National Voter Registration Act.
ACLU Voting Rights Project director Dale Ho slammed Kobach’s selection on Thursday, labeling the Kansan the “King of Voter Suppression.”
On Wednesday, a federal judge upheld an order compelling Kobach to turn over information he shared with Trump during a meeting in November of 2016. The world got a snapshot, literally, of the document in question — a few pages, actually — when Kobach accidentally displayed it as he walked into a meeting with Trump shortly after the election.
Though he was not brought on board by the incoming administration then, he clearly made an impression. His work spearheading Trump’s committee will be highly scrutinized from the outset, mostly because the initiative seems to have come about as a means of justifying the President’s bogus charge that as many as 5 million “illegals” voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
During a January meeting with top lawmakers in Washington, Trump sought to back the claim by relaying a story purportedly told by a friend of German golfer Bernhard Langer, the product of an apparent game of telephone that Langer quickly disputed.
Still, Trump persisted with the allegations, never providing any evidence to back to the claim or dispute a Brennan Center for Justice report that found voter fraud rates were between 0.00004% and 0.0009% — effectively nil.
Pence, who will head the commission, reportedly told Republicans at a policy retreat in January he expected the administration would “initiate a full evaluation of voting rolls in the country, the overall integrity of our voting system in the wake of this past election.”
And while the full breadth of the new “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” is still a little fuzzy, Kobach’s presence offers some insight into its ambitions.
Kobach is perhaps best known for his using his position in Kansas to help shape law in states across the country. He was involved in the writing of Arizona’s SB 1070, a law (even after being mostly struck down by the Supreme Court) that allows police to ask individuals for proof of citizenship if there is a “reasonable suspicion” they are in the country without documentation.
In Trump, the lawyerly Kobach has found a temperamental opposite, but staunch ideological ally. When Trump promised a wall during the campaign, Kobach was there with a nuts-and-bolts idea for how to make Mexico finance the project.
And while the wall is, for now, stuck in the mud, Kobach profile is set to keep on rising.