Nah, Trump’s Still a Birther

It’s the core of his political identity.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. September 16, 2016.
Donald Trump attends a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel on Friday in Washington.

Tom Williams/Getty Images

Donald Trump is still a birther.

It’s true that, at a press conference Friday morning, the Republican presidential nominee told an audience, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”

And it’s true that the New York Times declared a little while later that Trump had elected to “surrender to reality” on the question of Obama’s birth, ending a “remarkable campaign of relentless deception that tried to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president.”

But this is overly generous. We are talking about a candidate whose campaign is defined by its unbridled contempt for truth and accuracy. Take the tenor of the event. The press conference was slated for 10 a.m. but didn’t begin for another hour. When Trump arrived, he delivered an infomercial spiel for his new Washington hotel, then ceded the stage to several veterans, all of whom praised Trump for his leadership and resolve. One of those military figures, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, is himself a birther. In 2010, he wrote an affidavit on behalf of a lieutenant colonel who was refusing to deploy to Afghanistan on the grounds that Obama was foreign-born and thus an illegitimate president. The affidavit likewise questioned Obama’s authority, citing “widespread and legitimate concerns” about his place of birth. “He is the one single person in the Chain of Command that the Constitution demands proof of natural born citizenship,” wrote McInerney.

It takes a certain audacity to open a press conference about birtherism with a supporter who backs the very conspiracy supposedly being renounced. And although Trump mouthed the words that affirmed Obama’s citizenship, he ignored his role in fanning the conspiracy by pointing the finger at the Democratic presidential nominee. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” he said. “I finished it.”

This is false. The Clinton campaign wasn’t clean; strategist Mark Penn proposed attacking Obama for his alleged “lack of American roots,” and photos were circulated of the then-Illinois senator in traditional Muslim garb, which sparked waves of condemnation from Obama supporters and the media. But, as detailed by the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel in a piece last year, there’s no direct link between the birther conspiracy and Clinton, other than rumors spun by her most recalcitrant supporters in the closing days and weeks of the Democratic primary.

Birtherism only entered widespread consciousness after Trump adopted it as a cause, revitalizing the conspiracy. Indeed, birtherism was the catapult that launched Trump into conservative fame, giving him a platform that culminated this year in his nomination by the Republican Party for president of the United States. (Vox offers a helpful timeline of Trump’s birther advocacy.)

In a February 2011 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the reality television star voiced his suspicions about Obama. “Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere,” he told the crowd. “In fact, I’ll go a step further: The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.”

The next month, speaking on the View, Trump demanded to see the president’s birth certificate. “I want him to show his birth certificate. I want him to show his birth. … There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.”

The innuendo continued, this time on cable news. “If you are going to be president of the United States, you have to be born in this country. And there is a doubt as to whether or not he was,” said Trump on the O’Reilly Factor at the end of March that year. “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that. Or he may not have one. But I will tell you this. If he wasn’t born in this country, it’s one of the great scams of all time.”

Trump continued this line through April of that year, when President Obama released his original long-form birth certificate. At which point, Trump simply changed focus, demanding to see the president’s college transcripts. “The word is, according to what I’ve read, that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental. He then gets to Columbia; he then gets to Harvard,” Trump said. “Maybe that’s right, or maybe it’s wrong. But I don’t know why he doesn’t release his records.”

In his statement on Friday, Trump says he “ended” the birther controversy. Not only does this depend on the false idea that Clinton had started it, but it’s also false in its own right. Obama’s actual birthplace remained an obsession for the real estate mogul, a perennial subject of his tweets and interviews.

“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” tweeted Trump in August 2012.

“Attention all hackers: You are hacking everything else so please hack Obama’s college records (destroyed?) and check ‘place of birth,’ ” he tweeted in September 2014.

And that came after he defended his birtherism in an interview on Irish TV. “The president should come clean,” Trump said. When the host said that Obama had produced a birth certificate, Trump cast further doubts. “Well, a lot of people don’t agree with you, and a lot of people feel it wasn’t a proper certificate,” Trump said.

Trump spread birther ideas in 2015—“a lot of people question it,” he said in a question-and-answer session with Fox News’ Sean Hannity at CPAC—and he pushed it as recently as this January, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, where he also cast doubts on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s citizenship.

Donald Trump came to national political prominence as an advocate for this racist conspiracy theory. For five years afterward, he worked to delegitimize the president as a foreign outsider. Until today, he still refused to answer the question of Obama’s birth, denouncing the question in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

Birtherism isn’t a lark for Trump. It isn’t an eccentricity or something to look past. It’s the core of his political identity—the thing that gives coherence to his attacks on Mexican and Muslim immigrants and figures such as Judge Gonzalo Curiel. It is the original expression of his belief that citizenship is ultimately tied to blood and ethnicity and that some Americans are inherently more suspect than others. Birtherism is as intrinsic to Trump as racial egalitarianism is to Obama.

On the other hand, you have Trump’s one-sentence disavowal on Friday, delivered alongside two outright lies during a scam of an event at his new hotel. As observers, we can choose to believe Trump. Given the evidence, we shouldn’t.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.