Trump Time Capsule #107: Sidney Blumenthal Is Not a Birther

Orly Taitz (in red), leader of the "birther" movement until Donald Trump took on that role, at a Tea Party convention in 2010 (Josh Anderson / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

For the past few days Donald Trump has been saying that Hillary Clinton and her campaign launched the racist “birther” smear against Barack Obama.

Birtherism was a lie, as Trump now sort-of admits. But his claim that birtherism started with Hillary Clinton, in her losing campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, is a follow-on lie. For details, check back on installment #105 or an admirably direct story yesterday in the New York Times with the admirably blunt headline: “Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic.”

Today Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who generally has been playing the Good Cop in presenting a nicer version of Bad Cop Trump’s own arguments, went on Meet the Press and pinned specific blame for the supposed Clinton-world birther campaign on Sidney Blumenthal—author, former Bill Clinton staffer, and long-time Hillary Clinton ally.

Based on everything I know, which includes some first-hand experience, I view this as almost certainly yet another lie. It’s disappointing, to put it mildly, to hear Kellyanne Conway retailing it and so far being allowed to get away with doing so.

***

Here is the real sequence of birtherism, as I’m aware of it:

  • Twelve years ago, Barack Obama first drew national attention as a “he could go all the way!” candidate with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Very soon after that, conspiracy-minded bloggers and broadcasters from the right wing only—not anyone associated with Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat—began ginning up rumors that there was something “off” or “other” about Obama, apart from the obvious fact that he was black. Muslim? Indonesian? Communist? Kenyan? Saul Alinsky protege? Who knows. Back in 2007, Chris Hayes, then a Nation writer, chronicled the anti-Obama efforts along with other right-wing efforts of the time. This was the dawn of the birther age.
                                                                                                               
  • As Obama rose to beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination and then John McCain for the presidency, birther activity again on the right intensified. Through Obama’s first year in office, the most prominent birther was a right-wing lawyer-dentist from California named Orly Taitz.  By the summer of 2009, Taitz’s role was so evident that the Daily Beast did a feature on her called “Queen of the Birthers.” The author of that piece was Beast writer Max Blumenthal; please take note of his name. The Beast’s intro to the piece set up the state of birtherism, and its GOP affiliation, as of that time:

    “A new poll finds 58 percent of Republicans doubt Obama is American. Orly Taitz, the mastermind behind the Obama birth-certificate controversy, tells The Daily Beast’s Max Blumenthal why the president should be jailed.”  

  • In 2011, Donald Trump took up the mantle from Orly Taitz, and from then until very recently became the most prominent birther theorist.

***

Now, where do Hillary Clinton and Sid Blumenthal fit into this narrative? As far as I can tell, and to the best of my first-hand experience, they fit in only in an entirely fictitious way.

As discussed before in this space, I have known Sid Blumenthal for a very long time, since we were starting-out magazine writers in DC in the 1980s. We’ve agreed on many things and disagreed on others. The disagreements notably involved the 2008 Democratic primaries, in which he was a strong Hillary Clinton partisan and I favored Barack Obama (mainly because of their respective stands on the Iraq war). I think Sid Blumenthal’s magazine and book journalism of the 1980s and 1990s stands up very well. I think A Self-Made Man, the first installment of his multi-volume saga on Abraham Lincoln, is a magnificent look at 19th century American political, economic, and cultural history, with understated but impressive resonance for our current day.

During the intensity of the 2007-2008 primary campaign cycle, even though I was living in China, I was on Sid Blumenthal’s email list for frequent (several times daily) updates on the state of the campaign. Mostly these updates involved why Hillary Clinton would be a stronger Democratic nominee, and Barack Obama would be weaker. They talked about foreign-policy experience. They talked about possible Republican lines of attack. They talked about the way the smear machine that had maligned John Kerry on the fraudulent “Swift Boat” attack might be arrayed against Obama.

But not once, to the best of my first-hand knowledge, did they ever mention citizenship, birtherism, or Kenya.

Just now I’ve gone back through my email archives again. The words “Kenya,” “citizenship,” “birth certificate,” and related terms do not appear in any of the very large corpus of mail I received from Sid Blumenthal in 2007 and 2008. Sid has his critics and his flaws, like any of us. But the idea that he either originated or propagated the birther view of Obama, to the best of my knowledge, is phony.

Remember Max Blumenthal, author of the takedown of Orly Taitz and her fantasies in 2009? He is Sid and Jackie Blumenthal’s son.

***

The article on which Kellyanne Conway based today’s attack is here. See if you find it credible; I do not. A very thorough deconstruction of it, by a conservative writer, is here. Sample:

Here’s what we’re lacking from [the author of the accusatory article] (that could be reasonably asked of him):

  • detailed notes of his meeting with Blumenthal
  • multiple, unbiased reporters confirming that he met with Blumenthal in 2008, and that the subject of the meeting was birtherism
  • evidence that he sent an investigator to Kenya to pursue these claims
  • the investigator who traveled to Kenya confirming the investigation, the reason for the investigation, and the source

Asher has provided none of this, nor has he hinted at being able to provide any of this. Instead, the only thing he has offered is Blumenthal’s business card.

Further deconstruction from The Washington Monthly is here. The author of TWM’s piece, D.R. Tucker, makes a point similar to my own:

It’s profoundly unlikely that Blumenthal would encourage journalists to pursue a path of inquiry that a) was ridiculous on its face, b) would obviously lead nowhere and c) would make both himself and Clinton look like colossal fools.

Why does this qualify for Time Capsule notice? Because I’m not aware of a previous case in which a nominee has trafficked in claims that a sitting president was illegitimately in office (because, by birther logic, he was not legally eligible)—nor tried, via psychological projection, to blame these false claims on someone else once forced to admit they were lies.

It’s 50 days and a few hours until the election; one nominee has refused to release his tax information; and the Republican leadership continues to say, “He’s fine!”