First lady Michelle Obama is considered one of the most effective advocates for Hillary Clinton. So a pro-Donald Trump group, Make America Number 1, is trying to undercut those efforts by airing an ad that highlights comments made by her nine years ago.
These remarks caused a brief flurry of excitement at the time in that some thought Michelle Obama was being critical of Clinton. But the Obama campaign pushed hard against that interpretation. Yet here her comments are dredged up again in an attack ad.
The group claims that its research shows that the ad is unusually effective in blunting support for Clinton. That may well be the case, as the Clinton campaign has sent cease and desist letters to television stations demanding that they stop running the ad.
Let’s review what happened.
This all started because, Jennifer Hunter, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2007, thought she heard Michelle Obama take a swipe at Hillary Clinton during an appearance in Atlantic, Iowa. In a column that appeared on Aug. 21, titled “Michelle get stronger all the time,” Hunter wrote in the fifth paragraph:
Michelle said she travels with her husband in part “to model what it means to have family values,” adding “if you can’t run your own house, you can’t run the White House.” She didn’t elaborate, but it could be interpreted as a swipe at the Clintons.
The column was then picked up by the Drudge Report, which touted it with the headline: “Michelle Obama Slamming Hillary Clinton.” In the dog days of August, the Drudge treatment propelled it onto the cable news shows. But the Obama campaign at the time pushed back quickly.
As Hunter recounted in a follow-up column that ran on Aug. 23, 2007, she immediately received an email from Michelle Obama’s communications director, Katie McCormick Lelyveld.
Lelyveld “said I had completely misunderstood what Michelle Obama had said,” Hunter wrote. Lelyveld followed up in a phone conversation that Michelle Obama “was only referring to her family and making sure her girls are guided and strong.”
Hunter provided some additional context for Michelle Obama’s remarks, which were made as an introduction for her husband. Here’s what Michelle Obama said, with the section quoted in the newspaper in bold type.
“One of the most important things that we need to know about the next president of the United States is, is he somebody that shares our values, is he somebody that respects family, is a good and decent person? So our view is that if you can’t run your own house, you certainly can’t run the White House. So we’ve adjusted our schedule to make sure that our girls are first, so when he’s traveling around, I do day trips. That means I get up in the morning. I get the girls ready. I get them off. I go and do trips. I’m home before bedtime.”
Then-Sen. Barack Obama also disputed the media interpretation in a conference call with reporters. “Anybody who’s been listening to Michelle on the stump,” he said. “She’s talked about the importance of family, and the need for our family to be sure that we’re thinking about our kids during the process of this campaign.”
The Obama campaign also provided reporters with a transcript of Michelle Obama’s complete remarks.
Hunter, in her Aug. 23 column, did explain why she thought Michelle Obama might have been making a dig — and why she made a mistake.
“The Clintons certainly did have a hard time running the White House and their own house during the Monica Lewinsky affair as independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his henchmen began snooping around and President Clinton was impeached by Congress,” she wrote. “So you can see where I was going with this. It didn’t take a huge leap of logic. My mistake was not grabbing Michelle Obama when she left to ask for further elaboration — I was waiting to hear her husband speak.”
So this was all discussed and litigated at the time. Certainly some networks ran with the idea that it was a slam at Clinton — Fox News appears to have repeatedly brought up the line for months afterward — but clearly the Obama campaign rushed to dispute the negative interpretation.
In an interview with Hannah Storm of the CBS Early Show that aired on Sept. 14, 2007, Michelle Obama expressed puzzlement at the flap.
When Storm said “some people thought you were talking about the Clinton marriage,” Obama interrupted: “I was talking about me, my life. Go figure.” Storm followed up: “Why the reaction then? Why the firestorm?” Obama responded: “Good question, don’t know.”
Media critic Howard Kurtz, then host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, also was puzzled. “When, in fact, if you look at it in context, she wasn’t talking about Hillary at all,” he said on an Aug. 26 broadcast. “She was talking about sort of her own family trying to deal with the pressures of a presidential run.”
The ad itself uses a clip from a Chicago newscast regarding an Aug. 12 appearance at the Grand Ballroom of Chicago. The words are basically similar, though perhaps a bit more pointed. The ad incorrectly says the remarks were made in 2008.
The ad introduces the clip with this language: “If you really want to know who Hillary Clinton is, let’s hear from those who know her best.” Then after the clip runs, the ad concludes: “Michelle Obama doesn’t trust Hillary Clinton. Doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement.”
Kristina Hernandez, a spokeswoman for Make America Number 1, defended the use of the clip. “It certainly was considered by many to be a knock on the Clintons when it was said during the 2007/08 primaries,” she said. “People should be able to judge for themselves, and thanks to the First Amendment we can give them the opportunity to make that judgment.”
The Pinocchio Test
We initially were inclined to think this was worth Three Pinocchios, given that the comments could be open to interpretation. But given the immediate pushback at the time by the Obama campaign — the email and call from the spokeswoman, the conference call by Barack Obama, the puzzlement of Michelle Obama — we concluded it is ridiculous that this ad twists Michelle Obama’s words so out of context.
Although Hernandez says people should be able to judge for themselves, the ad actually gives viewers no opportunity to see the comments properly in context, with Obama talking about arranging bedtime and travel schedules. In fact, the ad falsely asserts, against significant evidence, that these words are about Hillary Clinton — and that Michelle Obama does not trust Clinton.
We find that the Clinton campaign’s complaint has merit. The television executives who permit this ad to run should be ashamed of themselves.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Check out our guide to all Trump and Clinton fact checks
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter