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The left is falling for Trump's voter fraud bait

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at the Chairman's Global Dinner at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017.
Kevin Dietsch | Pool via Bloomberg | Getty Images
President-elect Donald Trump speaks at the Chairman's Global Dinner at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017.

What's the top political story right now? There are a lot of juicy ones to choose from, but a quick look at the key newspapers, news websites, and cable news stations tells us that issue #1 is suddenly President Trump's claim that millions of votes were cast illegally for his opponents in the 2016 presidential election. The conventional wisdom says this is a black eye for the White House and a distraction from his agenda. Once again when it comes to all things Trump, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

The "experts" did have it half right. This voter fraud claim is a distraction alright. But it's not distracting President Trump. It's distracting almost everyone else from blocking and focusing on the Trump team's agenda, not the other way around.

But for President Trump, and a lot of conservatives with him, it gets better. The fact is that conservatives have tried to make allegations of widespread voter fraud a national front page story for about 20 years. They've demanded investigations into it. And they've had no real success. In fact, the counterclaim that there is no significant voter fraud has been taken so for granted that the case has rarely been made by Democratic Party politicians in public. It was basically a joke.

But now we have non-conservatives clamoring to talk about it all day and eager to see investigations launched to "prove" they're right. And that's a trap. First it's a trap because now almost any level of voter fraud that's discovered will elevate President Trump's claims from laughable to at least partially correct.

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And he already has that as a done deal thanks to several confirmed reports of voter irregularities last year. Detroit alone saw 37 percent of its voting districts tabulate more votes than actual registered voters. And there are documented cases of ballots cast by "dead people" in Colorado, non-citizens voting in Virginia, and the list goes on.

Just like President Trump likes to claim big victories every time a CEO announces what may be a relatively small or even previously-planned investment in the U.S., the White House will be able to successfully trumpet any and every documented case of voter fraud that comes up. And when the President tweets about it or mentions it in a news conference, it will get a 1000 percent more coverage than any previous claims of voter fraud ever did over the years.

Of course, you can just hear the journalists and the Trump opponents shouting: "But, but, but... it's not millions of illegal votes!" Granted, it probably isn't. But in politics, it's important not to get too bogged down by the details. The political impact of the public learning about dozens of small instances of voter fraud will be the same as one report totaling the number in the millions. The Trump team has known this all along, and won the election with a more persuasive and emotional campaign than Hillary Clinton's message that leaned on the "fact" that she was more "qualified" for the job.

Speaking of impact, what does the left's and the news media's obsession with this illegal voting distraction do for the overall Trump agenda? Currently, it's providing crucial cover. Notice that Trump's controversial cabinet nominees, especially Secretary of State-Designate Rex Tillerson, seem to be sailing through the confirmation process. The left hasn't raised a full-throated effort against Tillerson or any Trump nominee. I say that's in part because Trump keeps lobbing distraction bombs all over the place that the left cannot resist.

Why can't the anti-Trump forces get focused? The top reason is that President Trump chooses to distract them with the kinds of issues laden with the most emotionally charged themes for the left. His discussion of Mexican illegal immigrants, Muslim tourists, and now illegal voters are filled with the kinds of racial and xenophobic overtones Democrats and liberals have been obsessed with for decades and long before the Trump candidacy.

The left cannot ignore anything with those kinds of racial/cultural triggers, in fact it believes it's its duty to point it out every time. Some of those instincts are indeed admirable. But they've also led to an obsession that can be easily abused by the left itself and exploited by its political enemies. That's exactly what the president is doing now.

There's a perception that Donald Trump is a thin-skinned and oversensitive man who clings to myths and grudges to his own peril. The opposite is true. The evidence is much clearer that the new president is willing to take any amount of ridicule and personal attacks in order to get what he wants in the end.

First it was winning the election, now it's getting his political agenda enacted. As long as his opposition remains obsessed with the outrageous and not-so-outrageous controversial things he says, President Trump will be able to slip a lot through while everyone is so focused on something else. If he were too concerned about his personal image, President Trump and candidate Trump before him wouldn't say about half of what he says. But sometimes when there's no shame in your game, that's the best way to win.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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