On Friday, at the end of a press event, Donald Trump briefly alluded to the “birther” claim he’d been pushing for five years: that President Obama was, despite all evidence, born in Kenya, and thus ineligible for the presidency. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Trump said. “I finished it.… President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”
To some people, Trump’s peculiar way of putting this suggests he no longer sees any use for birtherism, having already attracted all the lunatics he could possibly need, and is now jettisoning the claim as a potential liability with moderates.
Rightbloggers didn’t have to work so hard to interpret events; their man said he didn’t believe in it, and that his opponent did, and as far as they were concerned that’s how it had always been.
Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, to Trump’s appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 10, 2011, at which he was blustering pretty much the way he does today — saying, for example, that the way a Real President deals with high gas prices is, he “calls up OPEC and says, ‘That — price — better — get — lower — and it better get lower fast!’ ” (Wonder if that’s how Obama got the price down?)
Trump also told CPAC that he would decide whether or not to run for President by June, and, oddly, that Obama “came out of nowhere…with no track record and, I will tell you…wonderful guy, nice man, but he had no record.”
The world got a stronger idea of what Trump was hinting when, a few weeks later, he went on Good Morning America and said, “if I decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten. They’ll remember me. [With Obama,] nobody comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It’s very strange.”
Trump birtherism went full-blown thereafter as he appeared on talk shows to demand proof of President Obama’s citizenship. He told Geraldo Rivera, “the fact is that we haven’t seen his birth certificate” — though Obama had in fact produced a short-form certificate in 2008, which prominent birthers such as Jerome Corsi had declared a fake (“White House links to deliberate forgery from Snopes.com, thinking it was real”).
As I reported at the time, Trump’s high-profile support energized the hardcore birthers, who’d been on their lonely quest for years with nobody more famous to represent them than Camille Paglia and one of the guys who invented #tcot.
Trump’s support also gave comfort to cryptobirthers — or what I came to call “birthers with an explanation” — who adopted a just-asking-questions straddle, in an apparent attempt to keep the issue public and thus damage Obama without surrendering plausible deniability — e.g. Mike Huckabee, who said “I would love to know more [about Obama’s birth certificate]. What I know is troubling enough,” and then had an aide tell the press he misspoke, wink wink.
Then there were the afterbirthers — conservatives who thought Obama was trying to trick them into questioning his birth certificate, such as breitbart.com’s SusanAnne Hiller: “Is Obama intentionally withholding his long-form birth certificate to continue to perpetrate the notion that those who question him are crazy giving the media more ammo against the birthers and the right?” As if they needed it. (You can read about some of my birther sub-classifications here, including the “Trump Pumpers,” who first fell in love with the future candidate during the birth certificate controversy.)
Meanwhile Trump did, well, pretty much what he does now: He got up a dog and pony show to amplify his claims. He told the press he’d sent investigators to Hawaii to dope out Obama’s birth status. Later, he offered $5 million for Obama’s “college records and applications…passport applications and records…” and, when he needed another hit of attention, said he’d upped the bounty to $50 million.
On April 27, 2011, Obama released his long-form certificate, which took a lot of wind out of the birthers’ sails. But Trump’s birther campaign merely went underground. Thereafter he mainly expressed his doubts on Twitter in dozens of bizarre tweets — e.g., “Why are people upset w/me over Pres Obama’s birth certificate? I got him to release it, or whatever it was, when nobody else could!” etc. Occasionally he’d appear in public and spout birtherism, as in this 2014 interview where Trump is reminded that Obama produced proof of his birth and responds, “Well, a lot of people don’t agree with you and a lot of people feel it wasn’t a proper certificate.”
In fact, never before Friday’s press conference did Trump say Obama was born in the USA. But blaming Hillary Clinton for birtherism wasn’t new for Trump — nor for rightbloggers.
Clinton-did-Birtherism has heretofore been one of the less-used of the Clinton conspiracy theories with which rightbloggers padded out their campaign materials — something to throw in there when the argument was already lost and they wanted to confuse their adversaries.
In a pettish 2009 anti-birther editorial, for example, National Review briefly claimed that birtherism “seems to have originated with a Hillary Clinton supporter at a blog called The Blue State” before moving on to other bullshit (“one of the unfortunate consequences of this red-herring discussion is that there are plenty of questions about Obama’s background and history that we would like to have answered”). Other rightbloggers dropped even wispier hints (“That makes me wonder, if Hillary had something to do with it”).
In 2011 Politico investigated the evolution of birtherism and listed many of the conservative and Republican players involved, including Andy Martin, who peddled the story of Obama’s “Muslim religion” in 2004. Politico also reported the birtherism of some Democrats, including “Clinton supporters” who “circulated an anonymous email questioning Obama’s citizenship” — which makes Clinton responsible for them in much the same way that Jodie Foster is responsible for the shooting of Ronald Reagan.
Nonetheless, every so often someone would claim Clinton was the ur-birther — including Trump, who tweeted in 2015, “Just remember, the birther movement was started by Hillary Clinton in 2008. She was all in!” (His allegedly more reasonable opponent for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, did the same.)
But these guys didn’t spend much time on the subject. Why would they? Back then birtherism had something for everyone on the right — a comforting tale for the crazy, and good smearing material for the crafty. What would be the point in giving Hillary the credit, except as a momentary diversion?
But when Trump abandoned birtherism and, as is his wont, tried to pin it on Hillary Clinton, suddenly the real story became The Real Birther, spurring rightblogger headlines like “How Hillary Clinton Created the Birther Movement,” “Hillary Calls Trump Original ‘Birther,’ But Her Campaign Actually Started It In 2008,” etc.
Any related news items got the brethren swarming. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Clinton’s ’08 campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, for example, who told him “one of our volunteer coordinators in one of the counties in Iowa…did forward an email that promoted the conspiracy,” and Hillary Clinton “made the decision immediately to let that person go” because “it was so, you know, beyond the pale.”
Got that? Okay. Here are a few examples of how rightbloggers interpreted it:
“Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager admits birther connection” (The Washington Times); “OOPS! Clinton Campaign Mgr Admits Hillary Staffer Started Birther Rumor On Obama In 2008!” (Right Wing News); “Former Hillary Campaign Manager Admits to 2008 Birther Link” (The Gateway Pundit); “Former Clinton Campaign Mgr. Tosses Hillary Under The Bus On ‘Birther’ Controversy” (ha ha, under the bus! Classic), and my favorite, “Hillary Insider Admits to Starting Birther Conspiracy, MSM Still Blames Trump” (no, honestly, Truth Revolt used red letters). That darned MSM! They always get it wrong.
Other approaches were tried. Former McClatchy Washington bureau chief and Clinton hater James Hasher emerged to claim Clinton pal Sidney Blumenthal had pitched birtherism to him in 2008. “Even though Blumenthal was not a paid part of the Clinton campaign,” explained Brad Wilmouth of NewsBusters, “if he made efforts to boost Clinton by trying to tear down her opponent, such activities would still be part of the Clinton team effort.” Better lawyer up, Jodie Foster.
“Liberal Reporter: Trump is Right,” headlined Selwyn Duke of the New American on the Asher story before embarking on thousands of words worth of birtherism (“This document is fraudulent. Many will dismiss this as [Sheriff Joe Arpaio] is an Obama opponent. But consider…”), cryptobirtherism (“whatever the case, this debate indicates that we should spend more time studying…”), and afterbirthism (“But then there’s the man who apparently did claim Obama was born overseas: Obama himself”) for the Triple Crown.
You can get a good sense of these guys’ thought processes by the way Fox News Houston reporter Kathleen McKinley got into it on Twitter. When someone pointed out Andy Martin’s role, McKinley tweeted, “No. That guy just floated the rumor that Obama was Muslim, nothing about birth. That was Hillary campaign vol chair” — referring to Solis. When someone pointed out she’d gotten that completely wrong, McKinley said, “Even if that were true, it’s still where it started!!!” and, later, gave the ultimate Hitlery-did-everything explanation: “But anyone who doesn’t think Hillary capable of that hasn’t followed her career.”
Much of the mainstream press, however, appeared sick of being played for chumps, and began to use the heretofore circumscribed word for Trump’s lies — that is, “lies” — to describe his birther performance.
For this they were attacked by, of all people, Rich Lowry, king of the National Review NeverTrump troops. “It’s not that this is an inaccurate description of what he did yesterday,” he admitted, “but it is an incredibly hostile formulation in a way that we have never seen and never will with Hillary.” I mean, my God, she blames Trump for stuff she actually did all the time!
Will it matter? At this point one is tempted to say, LOL Nothing Matters. But that may not be true; what’s more likely is, in a battle of aged hack versus blowhard outsider without historical precedent (yeah, I know, folks, but the cops are watching and I don’t want to get a Godwin’s ticket), polls are not good indicators of how the race is going, and the effect of a major presidential candidate fobbing the blame for the bullshit that got him the nomination in the first place onto his opponent is literally immeasurable. We may just have to batten down the hatches and wait for actual votes, taking notes meanwhile just to fulfill our debt to Clio, and to future generations, assuming we have any.