The Official Lie

The Republican party is now embracing Trump’s birther bullshit.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump states that he believes President Obama was born in the United States, during a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave., NW, September 16, 2016.
Donald Trump states that he believes President Obama was born in the United States at the Trump International Hotel on Sept. 16, 2016, in Washington D.C.

Tom Williams/Getty Images

It’s a strange feeling to watch one person lie with abandon. It’s even stranger to watch four different people tell the same lie, all within hours of each other.

The first was Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, sitting in an interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News. Raddatz conducted the interview on Saturday, but it aired on Sunday morning. Her first question was simple and pointed. “On Friday, for the very first time, Mr. Trump said that Barack Obama was born in the U.S.,” said Raddatz. “Why did it take him so long?”

Pence demurred and Raddatz asked again, pressing the Republican vice presidential nominee on Trump’s long obsession with the question of President Obama’s birthplace. “We counted since April of 2011, the year that Barack Obama gave his long-form birth certificate from Hawaii. We counted 67 times where Donald Trump tweeted or retweeted messages questioning his birthplace,” she said.

Facing clear evidence that Donald Trump had been a leader in the “birther” movement, Pence made a pivot. “Well, and I know there’s news reports that trace this birther movement all the way back to Hillary Clinton’s campaign back in 2008,” he said. Raddatz was incredulous. “You believe that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement?” she asked. “Look, I’ll let the facts speak for themselves,” replied Pence.

The facts do speak for themselves. Team Trump insists otherwise, but there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton is responsible for the “birtherism” myth. At most, the Clinton campaign (shamefully) attacked Obama for his so-called “foreign” background. It never questioned his birth or citizenship. According to James Asher, former Washington bureau chief for McClatchy, Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal pushed the birther theory to journalists. Blumenthal has denied the accusation, and there’s no evidence—no documents, no notes, no corroborating stories—to support Asher’s claim.

At best, Pence is misstating the facts. At worst, he’s lying as part of a deliberate strategy from the Trump campaign. That sounds far-fetched, until you realize that other surrogates were saying the same thing on different networks. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sat for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. After a brief discussion of the bombing in New York City, Tapper turned the conversation to Friday’s press conference. “You have been clear for a long time that Barack Obama was born in the United States. Donald Trump, by contrast, he clung to the birther lie for years. He still isn’t apologetic about it,” said Tapper. “Do you understand why so many people, including African Americans, are upset with him over the issue?”

Christie went down the same path as Pence, blaming Clinton for spreading birtherism and applauding Trump for settling the issue. “Donald has now made his position on it clear, which is that, after the president presented his birth certificate, Donald has said he was born in the United States, and that’s the end of the issue,” said Christie. Tapper pushed back. “Well, just as a point of fact, again, Donald Trump did not accept when Barack Obama released his birth certificate in 2011. He kept up this whole birther thing until Friday. That’s five years.”

And without skipping a beat, Christie denied the charge. “No, that’s just not true. It’s not true that he kept it up for five years,” said the New Jersey governor. “It is simply not true.”

Except, again, it is true. On Twitter and on television, Trump constantly questioned President Obama’s origins, even raising the issue at the beginning of this year, ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Either Christie doesn’t know this, or he’s simply lying.

The case for “lying” gets stronger when you consider the conversation on CBS’s Face the Nation, just an hour after Christie gave his performance. There, in an interview with John Dickerson, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway made the same, roundly debunked arguments as her colleagues: that Hillary Clinton is responsible for birtherism, and that Trump somehow resolved this issue.

“And so this started with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, number one,” said Conway. “Number two, it was Donald Trump who put the issue to rest when he got President Obama to release his birth certificate years later.” Dickerson corrected her on both counts, but she wouldn’t budge. Neither would Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who also spoke on Face the Nation.

“[B]y the preponderance of the evidence before us, Hillary Clinton or her campaign were definitely involved in this issue,” said Priebus. “So, we can’t keep saying it’s not true. That’s ridiculous.”

That Priebus would follow suit moves this from a strategy of casual lying—both to the press and to the public—to something more ominous. Priebus is the leader of one of the largest and most influential Republican institutions. By giving his assent to this neo-birther conspiracy, he makes it official—a talking point for any Republican who wants to use it. A certified defense for the fact that the party’s nominee spread a racist conspiracy theory for five years, in an effort to delegitimize the first black president of the United States.

On Monday evening, at a rally in Miami, Donald Trump used the occasion of the recent bombing in New York City to rail against immigrants, describing them as snakes that will inevitably attack the United States. It is a message of outright ethnic exclusion, the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign of white nationalism. And it reflects the same attitudes that brought us birtherism.

Once, those attitudes lived on the fringe of the Republican Party. Now, like Trump himself, they are the Republican Party.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.