“You know who started the birther movement? You know who started it? Do you know who questioned his birth certificate, one of the first? Hillary Clinton. She’s the one that started it. She brought it up years before it was brought up by me.”
— Donald Trump, interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, May 4, 2016
Zombie claims are stubborn things. No matter how many times you debunk them, they keep rising from the dead — even eight years later.
Trump was one of the most high-profile birthers during President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Starting early last year, Trump and other Republicans blamed Clinton for starting the birther movement. Our friends at FactCheck.org thoroughly disproved this and found no link between Clinton and the birther rumors. When Trump repeated it months later, PolitiFact and our colleague David Weigel again debunked it.
Not one to be deterred by facts, Trump said it yet again May 4, 2016, the day he officially became the presumptive Republican nominee for president. So we decided it’s our turn to get to the bottom of leading theories underlying this claim. Of course, the Trump campaign as usual did not respond to our request for information.
The allegation that Clinton was the first, or even one of the first, to question Obama’s birth certificate is simply false. But Trump would be on safer ground if he blamed her supporters for stoking the birther rumors, which do have some Democratic roots.
Let’s examine some of the main ongoing theories underlying the claim that Clinton was the “original birther.”
Strategy memo, March 2007
This memo is supposed to be a smoking gun. Mark Penn, then a Clinton campaign aide, laid out a strategy of positive and negative messages to defeat Obama. One of his suggestions was to target his “lack of American roots.” Excerpt, from the memo obtained by the Atlantic:
All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.
Save it for 2050.
It also exposes a very strong weakness for him — his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values. He told the people of NH yesterday he has a Kansas accent because his mother was from there. His mother lived in many states as far as we can tell — but this is an example of the nonsense he uses to cover this up.
“Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t,” Penn suggested. But he added: “We are never going to say anything about his background.”
Clinton “wisely chose not to go this route,” the Atlantic reported. Staffers who criticized Obama’s “otherness” (such as sending an email asking whether Obama was secretly Muslim) were admonished, Weigel wrote.
Note that the memo doesn’t mention Obama’s citizenship or question whether he was born in America. We asked Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin whether mentioning Obama’s citizenship was part of the strategy discussed in regard to this memo.
“The Clinton campaign never suggested that President Obama was not born here and never planned to,” Schwerin said.
Emails from Clinton supporters in 2008
In spring 2008, some of Clinton’s supporters began circulating anonymous emails questioning Obama’s citizenship. FactCheck.org and Politico cited these emails as the first time his citizenship was called into question, by a small group of “diehard” Clinton supporters during the Democratic primary as her path toward the nomination began to fade.
“What it goes back to is … not the Clinton campaign or her staff, but her supporters, as she was losing in the, sort of, really bitter spring of 2008,” Ben Smith, co-author of a Politico article digging into the birther movement’s roots, said in a 2011 MSNBC interview. “Some of her passionate supporters were kind of grasping at straws for reasons he [Obama] could be ineligible for president.”
Chain emails surfaced claiming Obama was ineligible to become president because he was born in Kenya, as his mom was too young to travel by plane back to America to give birth. Others claimed Obama was refusing to release his full birth certificate because it probably contains information that he had dual Kenyan and U.S. citizenship at birth.
Of course, it was just a rumor. FactCheck.org and the Hawaii Department of Health confirmed that Obama was born in Honolulu.
We found no evidence that Clinton or her campaign coordinated any of these email chains questioning Obama’s citizenship. Authors of the Politico story could not find any links to Clinton or her campaign, and neither could FactCheck.org or PolitiFact.
Clinton’s interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” March 2008
Some point to a “60 Minutes” interview to show that Clinton coyly suggested otherwise. But this interview has been taken out of context.
The main smear in the 2008 campaign was the rumor that Obama is a Muslim, and the birther question “bubbled around the fringes of 2008,” Smith said in the MSNBC interview.
Amid the Obama-is-Muslim rumors, a Clinton campaign staffer circulated a photo of Obama wearing a turban. Her campaign denounced the photo but did not identify which staffer was responsible — saying any of the 700-plus people working on the campaign could have sent it.
Steve Kroft asked Clinton about the photo and such rumors on “60 Minutes”:
Kroft: “You don’t believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim?”
Clinton: “Of course not. I mean, that’s… You know, there is no basis for that. I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn’t any reason to doubt that.”
Kroft: “You said you’d take Senator Obama at his word that he’s not a Muslim.”
Kroft: “You don’t believe that he’s –”
Clinton: “No. Why would I? There is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.”
Kroft: “It’s just scurrilous –”
Clinton: “Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors that I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time.”
While Obama’s citizenship was not mentioned here, this clip has been used to assert that Clinton tacitly endorsed birther theories by adding: “as far as I know.” These five words would be used against her for the next seven years.
We asked Schwerin whether Clinton was suggesting that the birther rumors were true, even while calling them “ridiculous,” and he said: “No. As you pointed out, she said it was a ridiculous rumor.”
[Update: James Asher, former D.C. bureau chief of McClatchy, tweeted on Sept. 16 that Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal had met with him to ask for an investigation into birther rumors in 2008. Asher told McClatchy that Blumenthal “strongly urged” him to “investigate the exact place of President Obama’s birth, which he suggested was in Kenya.” McClatchy assigned a reporter to go to Kenya, and the reporter found the allegation was false, Asher said.
We reached out to Asher, but he did not respond to our requests for further explanation. Blumenthal, declining to elaborate further, said in a statement to The Fact Checker: “This is false. Period. Donald Trump cannot distract from the fact that he is the one who embraced and promoted the birther lie, and bears the responsibility for it.”]
The Pinocchio Test
There’s no evidence to support Trump’s repeated claim that Clinton “started” the birther movement and was one of the first to question Obama’s birth certificate. He could blame the actions of Clinton’s supporters during the 2008 primary or say the rumor has some Democratic roots. But there’s no evidence that she or her campaign questioned his birth certificate or his citizenship. Further, the campaign denounced isolated instances of Clinton’s staffers questioning whether Obama was Muslim.
Later in the in the same CNN interview, Wolf Blitzer asked Trump about his supporters’ anti-Semitic attacks and death threats against Julia Ioffe for her profile of Melania Trump in GQ. Trump repeatedly distanced himself from the actions of this group of supporters: “I don’t know anything about that. … I know nothing about it. … You’ll have to talk to them about it. … I don’t have a message to the fans.”
If Trump doesn’t believe in being held accountable for the actions of his supporters, perhaps he should consider the same standard for his political opponents. Glass houses, and all that.
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