Of everything that can be said about Joe Arpaio, the soon-to-be former sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, it would be remiss to leave out persistence. He is 84 years old and has helmed the largest sheriff’s office in the state for six terms. He conducted “crime-suppression operations,” which a federal judge determined to be racial profiling, long after he was ordered to stop. For willfully ignoring that court-order, he now faces misdemeanor criminal contempt of court charges. This November, he was defeated in his reelection, but he has one last investigation to finish.
On Thursday night, Arpaio released the findings of his five-year probe into the citizenship of President Obama. In a more than hour-long press conference, Arpaio and his lead investigator in the case, Mike Zullo, who heads a nonprofit called the Cold Case Posse, a group of volunteers, presented what they said was “profound” evidence, which was “quite disturbing” and clear proof that Obama’s birth certificate from Hawaii was a “fraudulently created document.” What followed would have been comical, were the implications into what the birther movement really means not so concerning: a conspiracy elevated to a national spectacle that sought to discredit the first black U.S. president.
“I did not care where the president was born,” Arpaio said, as he began the presentation. The investigation, he said, “had nothing to do with that. But we were going to investigate a possible government forged document.”
Zullo took over and played a video that laid out the findings of two document examiners, one based in Hawaii, and another in Italy. The revelation centered on how the copy of Obama’s 1961 birth certificate matched up with another certificate, made 16 days later, by the same office. Zullo never clearly explained why the second certificate had been included in the investigation, or how Arpaio’s posse came across it. The video purported to show how the alignment of nine stampings on both certificates matched up, seemingly edited by “Photoshop, or God only knows what else,” Zullo said. The implication was that Obama’s birth certificate had been forged using this as a model.
Another unanswered thread in the presentation was the involvement of a man named Jerome Corsi, who, it turns out, has written a book about Obama’s birth certificate conspiracy. Corsi has also written books claiming Adolf Hitler escaped World War II’s Allied Forces and hid in Argentina, and another about a 9/11 conspiracy.
Arpaio is the last of the birthers. Not even President-elect Donald Trump still believes (publicly) that Obama was born in Kenya, forged his birth certificate, planted a birth announcement in an August 13, 1961 issue of The Honolulu Advertiser, and duped the nation.
This September, Trump renounced his five-year quest to prove Obama was not a citizen, by saying, “President Obama was born in the United States — period."
But still, Arpaio persisted.
Trump had been integral in the elevation of this conspiracy from right-wing internet forums to national media. It had surfaced in 2008, during Obama’s first campaign, and resurfaced during his reelection.
“Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate?” Trump asked Whoopi Goldberg in 2011 when he appeared on The View. “I wish he would because I think it’s a terrible pall that’s hanging over him... There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.”
Obama had released a version of his birth certificate four years earlier, but that did not satisfy Arpaio, nor did it appease Trump, who at the time was not politically involved. Indeed, Trump became politicized because of his incessant hounding that the president of the U.S. was born in Africa.
For months after this, Trump crisscrossed the country and advised fellow birthers who held political office on how they might write laws to require future presidents to ante up a birth certificate. Most zealous of his followers was Arpaio. In August 2011, during the furor of birther conspiracy, Arpaio began his investigation at the behest of the Tea Party Patriots. They, in turn, were motivated to do so after listening to a speech at an Arizona chapter house given by Corsi, the conspiracy theory author. Arpaio began his investigation a week later, joined by Trump, and soon appointed Zullo to lead the investigation. Then Zullo left for Hawaii in a highly publicized attempt to drum up the real birth certificate (funded by taxpayers).
Being an election year, it played well for Arpaio, who at the time was under federal investigation for racial profiling. In fact, Arpaio made it a habit to plan birther press conferences ahead of potentially negative announcements in his case. These seemed to serve both as a means to direct attention away from the federal investigation into his department, and also to pad his reelection campaign with millions of out-of-state donations. “We feel that that document is a forgery,” Arpaio had said. “We’re trying to figure out who did it. That’s good police work.” And more money came in.
In a July 2012 birther press conference, Zullo laid out the investigation and the 10 days he and others spent in Hawaii. Over the course of an hour, Zullo recounted a rabbit hole of conspiracies, buttressed only by a 95-year-old woman, a former registrar, who said the numbers on Obama’s birth certificate seemed to be inconsistent. With that, and because Hawaii officials would not let Zullo examine the original copy of the certificate, Arpaio declared it a phony.
Four years passed, and about every politician, including Trump, has cast off the birther claim for what it is.
Arpaio, if anything, has been persistent. But he has also been masterfully duplicitous when it comes to working the media. In the 90s, he reinstated chain gangs and forced prisoners to dress in pink underwear. It became a media spectacle. He later learned that if he repeated rumors to reporters that he’d been placed on a Mexican cartel hit list, and questioned the legitimacy of the first black U.S. president, people paid attention. The press raised his political profile. And because a good conspiracy is inherently unprovable, he never let down those supporters who loved him for it. It made sense, then, that he and Trump became such perfect bedfellows.
Arpaio praised Trump this summer at the Republican National Convention, and it even looked like he might receive a cabinet position. But those spots are almost filled, and the criminal case against Arpaio is ramping up. In two weeks he will be out of a job. It was a perfect time for another birther press conference.
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