You’d think this wouldn’t be too hard a question: Was Barack Obama, the president of the United States, born in the United States? On the one hand, there’s a thick stack of documentation, from official records to newspaper announcements to eyewitnesses. On the other, there’s no evidence and a great deal of racism.
And yet Donald Trump couldn’t bring himself to admit it until Friday morning.
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Trump said, which is untrue. “I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
It was a notable moment—the chief proponent for years of the slander that Obama was not born in Hawaii admitting he was wrong—and yet one shot through with dishonesty. Clinton did not start the birther movement, and Trump, rather than seeking to end the controversy, worked at length to fan it. Even after Obama released his “long-form” birth certificate, meanwhile, Trump continued to spread birther innuendo. The statement is at once a welcome recognition and also obviously too little, too late, after Trump spent five years fanning the racist conspiracy theory.
The brief, terse statement came after a parade of Trump campaign officials insisted publicly for several days that Trump now believed Obama was born in the United States. But the candidate himself? On Thursday, he was asked by The Washington Post what he thought, and he refused to answer. “I’ll answer that question at the right time,” the Republican presidential nominee said. “I just don’t want to answer it yet.”
Amid heated backlash, Trump’s campaign issued a statement late Thursday, signed by spokesman Jason Miller:
Hillary Clinton’s campaign first raised this issue to smear then-candidate Barack Obama in her very nasty, failed 2008 campaign for President. This type of vicious and conniving behavior is straight from the Clinton Playbook. As usual, however, Hillary Clinton was too weak to get an answer. Even the MSNBC show Morning Joe admits that it was Clinton’s henchmen who first raised this issue, not Donald J. Trump.
In 2011, Mr. Trump was finally able to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate. Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised. Inarguably, Donald J. Trump is a closer. Having successfully obtained President Obama’s birth certificate when others could not, Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States.
The statement is a remarkable farrago of falsehood and frivolity.
Start with the first paragraph. The idea that Clinton started the birther story is a common one among birthers, who for some reason are unwilling to own the origins of their theory. It’s based on a memo from Mark Penn, first published by Joshua Green in The Atlantic, in which the Clinton campaign strategist suggesting harping on Obama’s “lack of American roots.” (The statement, in fact, links to Green’s story.) That seemed to be a reference to Obama’s time spent overseas, but it was a political argument, if a dirty one. The Clinton campaign never raised questions about Obama’s eligibility. The Trump campaign characterizes this as “vicious and conniving behavior” even as Trump eagerly positioned himself as the highest-profile proponent of birther innuendo.
Next up is the idea that “Trump was finally able to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate.” That’s quite the rhetorical turn: One can’t very well gin up a bogus national story questioning the legitimacy of the president and then lament it as an “ugly incident” without admitting one’s own central role. The claim that Trump “successfully obtained President Obama’s birth certificate when others could not” is similarly out there. Trump is on more solid ground saying that he “successfully compell[ed]” Obama to release the long-form document, but Trump himself did nothing to obtain it. His claim that he was sending investigators to Hawaii at the time appears to have been false, too.
While the statement suggests that Trump felt assured of Obama’s origins once the long-form certificate was released, his own public statements tell a different tale—one of a man eager to prolong the “ugly incident” through innuendo and questions for years after the 2011 release. Here are a few examples:
When I was 18, people called me Donald Trump. When he was 18, @BarackObama was Barry Soweto. Weird.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2012
An 'extremely credible source' has called my office and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2012
How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s “birth certificate” died in plane crash today. All others lived— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2013
Attention all hackers: You are hacking everything else so please hack Obama's college records (destroyed?) and check "place of birth"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2014
But anyway, why can’t Trump say this all himself? Reporters began wryly recirculating a tweet from May where Trump made his feelings about spokesmen clear:
Don't believe the biased and phony media quoting people who work for my campaign. The only quote that matters is a quote from me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 28, 2016
Friday morning, Trump told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo that he’d address the question during a press conference at 10 a.m. at his new hotel in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps Trump really does believe that Obama was born overseas. Or maybe he’s making a political calculation. Trump’s work riling up birthers in 2011 was an important step for him in moving from the world of business to the world of politics. It gained him a following in certain segments of what’s now known as the alt-right and in conservative media outlets like Breitbart. Birthers remain an important part of his supporters. In an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll this summer, nearly three-quarters of Republicans had questions about whether Obama was born in the United States, with 41 percent saying he was not and another 31 percent saying they were unsure.
That’s the vise Trump has set for himself. When a campaign is constructed on a foundation of racist dogwhistling, it’s hard to disavow racist dogwhistles. But then again, when a campaign is constructed on a foundation of racist dogwhistling, it’s difficult to win a majority of the vote.