The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans are blaming Hillary Clinton for the ‘birther’ movement. That’s wishful thinking.

During a campaign rally at the Charleston Convention Center, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says Hillary Clinton was 'the original birther.' (Video: Reuters)

Donald Trump no longer wants to be America's birther-in-chief. In a Monday interview with Fox News — which might have been his last Trump said that questions about President Obama's citizenship "began" with Hillary Clinton, "when she was running against him." On Wednesday, at a rally in South Carolina, Trump emphasized that Clinton was "the original birther" and "the one who started that whole thing."

This was not Trump's first dabble with birther revisionism. At CPAC this winter, he insisted to Fox News host Sean Hannity that he was not the first birth certificate sleuth only the most successful. "Hillary Clinton wanted his birth certificate," Trump said. "Hillary is a birther. She wanted it, but she was unable to get it."

And more and more conservatives have settled on the Trump line — that the questions about Obama's citizenship were so slimy that they obviously came from the Clinton camp. "The whole birther thing was started by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008 against Barack Obama," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) confidently told Yahoo News this summer.

The problem: This is simply not true. Clinton's campaign, one of the most thoroughly dissected in modern history, never raised questions about the future president's citizenship. The idea that it did is based largely on a series of disconnected actions by supporters of Clinton, mostly in the months between Obama's reaction to the Jeremiah Wright story and the Democratic National Convention. I know, because I spent/wasted quite a lot of time covering this stuff.

It's probably best to start by dividing up the Trump/Cruz/conservative claims. Clinton never personally called for the release of Obama's birth certificate or questioned his American bona fides. You would have heard about that. But her campaign did ask an obvious question: How to convince Democratic voters that "Barack Hussein Obama" was not electable? In March 2007, in a memo later obtained by reporter Joshua Green, Clinton pollster Mark Penn dismissed Obama with the suggestion that he was simply too alien to win a national election.

"All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural, and putting that in a new light," wrote Penn. "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."

But Penn wrote that as a warning, not a strategy. Indeed, when staffers stumbled into criticisms of Obama's "otherness," they were admonished. In December 2007, a Clinton campaign worker named Judy Rose sent an e-mail asking whether Obama was a secret Muslim who intended to destroy America from the inside. She was fired and denounced. Three months later, when the Drudge Report claimed that a photo of Obama wearing a turban was sent from "stressed Clinton staffers," the Clinton campaign denounced it but didn't find a scalp. According to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in "Game Change," the most ludicrous "othering" theory that Clinton allies engaged in was that a tape existed, somewhere, of Michelle Obama denouncing "whitey" and that Clinton herself believed it when consigliere Sid Blumenthal talked about it.

But the Clinton campaign never pursued the idea that Obama was literally not American, and therefore ineligible for the presidency. A small group of hardcore Clinton supporters did. Specifically, anyone reading the fringe Web in the summer of 2008 could find the now-defunct blog called TexasDarlin, the now-defunct blog PUMAParty, and the now-conservative blog HillBuzz posting updates on the hunt for a birth certificate. It was a thin reed, and they knew it.

"It looks like Obama was born in Hawaii, based on a recently discovered birth announcement found in a Hawaiian newspaper," one HillBuzz blogger wrote in July 2008. "It also looks like the reason Obama refuses to produce his actual birth certificate is that it very likely records dual Kenyan and U.S.  citizenship at Obama’s birth."

Without getting too thick into the weeds and generously assuming that we are not there yet the next phase of "birtherism" was focused on the "dual citizenship" issue. Phil Berg, a troubled (and now disbarred) Philadelphia attorney who had supported Clinton for president, sued to kick Obama off the Pennsylvania ballot on the strength of a strange audiotape in which a Kenyan man told a cold-caller that the president was from his country; he also speculated that an Indonesian document that listed the future president as "Indonesian" might have been legally binding. (It was not.)

Berg, obviously, did not do this at the behest of Clinton, who by then was campaigning for Obama. And after the 2008 election, very quickly, the faces of the birther legal movement became right-wing activists like Orly Taitz. The first people who grew obsessed with Obama's birth certificate were, indeed, Clinton superfans who wanted Obama off the ballot. But Clinton's campaign, for all of its Obama panic, did not indulge them. And birtherism took off on the right in a way it never had on the left, to the extent that multiple Republican members of Congress eventually signed on to legislation that would have demanded more proof of citizenship from future presidential candidates. (As Charles Johnson points out, there had been scattered "but is Obama eligible?" talk on the right before any of that.)

Trump, nonetheless, can get the media talking. This morning, before his South Carolina speech, CNN's Don Lemon used a segment on the Tom Joyner radio show to ask Clinton to respond to Trump. He did not cite any particular evidence. He just repeated the claim.

"Did you or your campaign start the whole birther thing?" he asked. "Did you have a confrontation with the president."

Clinton responded with a loud "no" and called the idea "so ludicrous." But if birtherism proves anything, it's that an idea that feeds a stereotype — in this case, that of Clinton as impossibly ruthless is hard to get rid of.