Donald Trump's 'Original Sin'

The Republican nominee now says the president was born in the United States. But birtherism won’t go away that easily.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reacts as reporters yell questions to him after he stated that he believes U.S. President Barack Obama was born in the United States at a campaign event at the Trump International Hotel. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—After Donald Trump declared Friday morning that Barack Obama was born in the United States, Trump supporters inside his new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue insisted that controversy over the president’s citizenship is over.

“The birther issue is such a joke right now,” said Patrick Cecil, a 19-year-old Trump backer who’d come to see his candidate speak at the Trump International Hotel. “Nobody really talks about it, it’s a non-issue,” he told me. Jo-Ann Chase, who was wearing a Make America Great Again hat, seemed to agree. “The subject is over, we’re moving on,” she said, appearing frustrated that the media wanted to ask about the very topic Trump himself had just brought up while speaking to a crowd of supporters and reporters. “He already made his statement, and we’re moving on,” Chase added emphatically.

At least part of her assertion was true: Trump had just made his statement. Moments earlier, the Republican presidential nominee had said that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States—period,” though that announcement came immediately after he falsely claimed that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy.”

Trump is attempting to rewrite history. Long before he was the Republican presidential nominee, Trump was the chief proponent of birtherism, raising questions over whether Obama was really born in the United States in an attempt to discredit the country’s first black president. (Spoiler alert: He was.) Now, Trump, and at least some of his supporters, seem anxious to put birtherism behind them. “His comment about the birther thing, I think he’s closing the book on it,” Bryan Crosswhite, a Trump supporter who attended the speech, told me.

The idea that Trump doesn’t want to talk about a fringe conspiracy theory that he worked hard to elevate to the political mainstream seems difficult to believe. But that was then, this is now. Trump was willing to promote conspiracy theories rooted in racism as a way to appeal to resentful white voters when he wanted to make a political name for himself. Now that he faces a general election fight, he seems to want to leave that in the past, without truly doing penance for his prior offenses.

Yet no matter what Trump says, birtherism won’t simply disappear.

Political tactics based on appeals to discrimination and identity politics have long lifespans. Hillary Clinton is confronting similar tactics as she contends with insinuations—made by Trump, his supporters, and other political opponents—that she may be too weak and frail to serve as president. And while some Trump supporters may want to put birtherism behind them, not all of the Republican nominee’s backers may be so willing to move on.

On Friday morning, a few Trump fans gathered outside his hotel to show support for the candidate before he spoke. Nineteen-year-old Jim McCrery and 57-year-old Don Davis identified themselves as Trump supporters, and both said they believe it is possible that Obama was not born in the United States. “A family friend of mine was born in Hawaii the same year that Obama was, and he said his birth certificate looks completely different. So I think that’s a little suspicious,” McCrery said. “If you look at the things he does, he’s so anti-American,” Davis offered.

Then there were the few Trump detractors who assembled outside Trump’s new property, just blocks away from the White House. Jeff Stein, a 32-year-old from California, had arrived ahead of the press conference with a sign that read “Man up and apologize, you pathetic racist coward!!!”—evidently intended for Trump.

“This is the original sin, and I still think it’s the worst one,” Stein told me, referring to the way Trump promoted the birther controversy. “When you vault your political career by relentlessly badgering the first black president to show his papers, you’re deplorable.” Stein voiced frustration over media coverage of Trump supporters during this election cycle: “What really bothers me is that [people say] it’s unacceptable to call his supporters deplorable. You can’t call them bigoted, racist, white supremacists—you have to make up nice-sounding names for them, like nationalists or populists,” he said, adding that he plans to vote for Clinton. “They can say whatever offensive stuff they want, but you call them out on it and all of a sudden they’re the victim.”