Michael Cohen Reminded Us Why Trump’s Birtherism Matters

The president’s former lawyer called him “a con man” and “a racist.” As Obama’s White House counsel, I had to deal with the consequences.

Michael Cohen
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen appeared before the House Oversight Committee under the heavy expectation that he would reveal more about the president’s potential crimes. He had some to add to the list. He supplied detail on campaign-finance violations, “collusion,” the misuse of the Trump Foundation, and fraudulent financial practices. But he was there less as a fact witness than as a character witness; he had a story to tell about Trump as a “con man,” “cheat,” and “racist.” And this piece of his testimony was extraordinary, enough that, with so much attention to any evidence he might offer of crimes, it may have slipped too far out of focus.

Among the exhibits that Cohen submitted along with his written testimony was a news article (Exhibit 7) reflecting Trump’s years of championing the “birther” claim against President Barack Obama. Trump repeatedly hawked the lies that Obama was born in Kenya, had hidden his real birth certificate, and had manufactured the one he publicly presented. And if there was any chance that this was not true—and Trump left little room for that possibility—he questioned whether Obama had traded on his race to gain admission to elite educational institutions. With this one, ugly political stunt, Trump managed to display both of the ugly character traits that his former lawyer singled out for the House: the conning (i.e., chronic lying) and the racism.

This was not dog-whistle racism; Trump was shouting it out. As The New York Times argued, Trump was waging nothing less than a “campaign” around these lies, and it was impossible to imagine that this line of attack on Obama “as the insidious ‘other’ would have been conducted against a white president.” And because Trump was getting the attention he wanted, he kept going. He was able to command a national audience, and the press he craved, for a barefaced lie encoding a racist message.

Trump did so well that in April 2011, the White House obtained and released additional documentation: the “long-form” birth certificate. At the time, I was serving as White House counsel and was charged with coordinating the acquisition of the form. It was not the “official” birth certificate the Obama campaign had publicly posted years before. Long forms contain more information, such as the ages and birthplaces of the parents and the name of the hospital, but they are not more authoritative than the official certificate in confirming the date and location of birth.

By acquiring and releasing this document, the White House might have been taken to be conceding that what it had previously put out was not adequate or reliable. It was not conceding anything of the sort. But it faced a problem: Reporters had begun pressing for the White House to find and produce the long form, as if this were the response that the president reasonably owed his accuser.

Somehow it was thought foolish to ignore the lies and the message they conveyed. No responsible observer or member of the press doubted the official birth certificate, and there were other pieces of corroborating evidence, such as the birth notice that had appeared in the Hawaiian press. This was, perversely, deemed insufficient. President Obama supposedly needed to do more to quiet the birthers and their most vocal national spokesperson, Donald Trump.

The view that Obama needed to go the extra mile began spreading to surprising quarters. The MSNBC news-show host Chris Matthews had no patience for the lies of the birther movement, yet he memorably expressed bewilderment that the president had so far resisted providing the public with the long form. In no way questioning that Obama had been born in the United States, Matthews nevertheless wondered on air, “Why has the president himself not demanded that they put out the initial [long-form] documents?” Matthews counseled that the president “should just say, ‘Send me a copy right now.’”

A reasonable response to the question might have been that Trump’s mendacious, race-based hectoring did not merit a response from the president of the United States. Trump had not raised a legitimate question because there was no such question to be raised. He had just stated and tweeted unsupportable suggestions that the president had been born overseas and was covering it up. Trump rested what passed for allegations on “what somebody told me,” or what he knew from “people who have been studying [the birthplace],” or the belief of “many people” that the official certificate was not genuine. He declared in March 2011 that “a lot of facts … are emerging.” Replace facts with lies in that sentence, and he would have at long last told a truth. And he was the leading liar, the most notorious and well covered of the lot.

Nonetheless, the pressure built for the White House to respond, which was, in effect, a demand that it take Trump and the birther charges more seriously. Eventually, in April, the decision was made to attempt to stop the press inquiries, and potentially limit the news coverage of this bogus issue, by acquiring and releasing the additional documentation. I asked the president’s personal attorney, Judith Corley, to travel to Hawaii to obtain a copy of the long form and return with it by Monday.

Once we had it in hand, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House director of communications, and I brought it to the press briefing room for distribution and to answer questions. I explained the procedure we had used to achieve access to the long form.

But then I got this question:Bob, can you explain why President Obama let this drag on for four years? Was it Donald Trump that prompted you to issue this?”

I referred the question to Pfeiffer, who rejected the premise that the president had “let” anything “drag on.” He reminded the press in measured terms that, traveling from the “nether regions of the internet onto mainstream network newscasts,” these lies had become a distraction from the serious business of governing. Trump had managed to make his lies—in this instance, lies as plain as day and racist in their implications and appeals—newsworthy.

The president later appeared before the press to make personal remarks on the issue. He noted that “most of the news outlets … represented here” had devoted considerable time and space to Trump’s vicious birther nonsense. “We’re not going to be able to [solve our problems] if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers” and “if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts.”

As we suspected all along, the release of the long form would not cause Trump to change course. More than a year later, in May 2012, he went beyond references to the alleged rumor mill and stated outright that Obama’s “mother was not in the hospital” in Hawaii where he was born. Then Trump resorted to claiming to have information from sources briefing him directly on the fraud: In August 2012, he reported on Twitter hearing from an “extremely credible” source that the long form was a fake.

In December 2012, a year and a half after the release, he tweeted his suspicion that the conspiracy now included murder. He proclaimed it most “amazing” that the “State Health Official who verified copies of Obama ‘birth certificate’ died in a plane crash,” the only one of those on board not to survive. He was suggesting, of course, that this official was killed to prevent her from confessing to the faked documents. He carefully placed the scare quotes around “birth certificate.”

Now, it is conceivable that a cynic might play on racism, stoking it however he can for his own gain, and not hold racist beliefs. Trump has shown that he will say anything to serve his own purposes. If he could draw attention to himself with his birther speculations and the fabrication of supporting material (“extremely credible” but unnamed sources), he would do so, and his own views on race might be largely irrelevant to his ploy. He might be similarly motivated in his pursuit of votes.

Michael Cohen has now testified before Congress that Trump is the genuine article—the liar we knew he was and, as many suspected before Cohen’s sworn statement for the congressional hearing record, a committed racist. Cohen is not the first former associate to say it, but he said it under oath. Trump in office had gone out of his way to defend the white supremacists rampaging in Charlottesville, and he had derided African nations as “shitholes.” But Cohen told of his direct experience with Trump’s racism: “In private, he is even worse.” He gave examples.

The light Cohen shed on Trump’s racism could not compete for public attention with the evidence he offered of campaign-finance-law violations, such as the $35,000 “hush money” reimbursement that the president allegedly delivered to his lawyer by personal check. But as evidence that he is unfit to be president of the United States, it was even more devastating.

We had plenty of warning when Trump’s birther routine became an irresistible sideshow. Then this carnival barker hit it big, packed them in, and took the conning and the racism right up to the executive suite.