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Donald Trump’s history of birtherism, selective résumé checks and the thread that connects it all

Donald Trump now says Obama was born in the U.S. – but falsely blames Clinton for starting rumor (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
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First he refused to say whether he believes President Obama was born in the United States in an interview with The Washington Post.

Then, his campaign released a statement attempting to remake as a public service Trump's years-long effort to delegitimize the sitting president of the United States and the first self-identified black man elected to the office. The statement claimed that Trump forced the president to release his birth records, putting the question of Obama's birthplace to rest, failing to mention that some five years after Obama released said record, Trump has, on multiple occasions, insisted that no one is certain of the president's birthplace. Not yet done extracting all the attention that can be gleaned from giving voice to a conspiracy theory, Trump staged a Friday news conference — at his recently opened downtown Washington hotel. He said just two things.

"President Obama was born in the United States, period." And, "now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again."

Nothing more. There was no apology for building his political profile by questioning whether the current president of the United States is a natural-born citizen; for very publicly appointing himself the arbiter of Obama's eligibility for the Oval Office and embracing a movement challenging this in ways that have been repeatedly described as racist in both intent and tone.

Even so, what Trump and his campaign have said about birtherism this week reveals a great deal about the way that the Republican presidential candidate thinks and how that informs his politics.

There is no factual or even technical reason to question that a man born in Hawaii in 1961 is a U.S. citizen. Obama's race simply makes him suspect to birthers. Trump's makes him competent and fit to serve as a self-appointed judge of Obama's Americanness.

Now, to really understand the degree to which this race-related reasoning guides Trump and his birther ilk, it is necessary to explore an unpublished story from reality-TV history. Really. 

In 2005, in the final minutes of Trump's once wildly popular reality-TV show "The Apprentice," Trump was going to name a winner.

He could pick between Rebecca Jarvis, a financial journalist, a couple of years out of the prestigious University of Chicago; or Randall Pinkett, owner of a successful business, graduate of Rutgers, Oxford and MIT. Pinkett has a BS, two MS degrees, an MBA and a PhD. He is a Rhodes scholar and an engineer.

Trump picked Pinkett.

Then, Trump asked Pinkett — the show's first African American winner — whether he should name two apprentices. TV Guide called it a Trump "twist." When Pinkett talked Trump out of that on national TV, he knew something the audience did not.

Trump had already called several people with whom Pinkett had worked or studied, checking the veracity of almost every item on Pinkett's résumé. That, to Pinkett, seemed reasonable. But sometimes, off camera around "The Apprentice" set, Trump had also made a habit of peppering Pinkett, and only Pinkett, with questions about himself, his company, his education and expertise. After a while, the real theme emerged, Pinkett said.

"It was clear to me Trump had never met a black man like me," Pinkett told me in an interview earlier this year for The Post's Trump biography, "Trump Revealed." "Black man, MIT and Oxford just did not compute. Then, once I was inside the Trump organization, I could see that this also played out. I never saw a single person of color in a top executive role. Not one."

Fast forward to 2011. Pinkett had worked for Trump for a year, overseeing the redevelopment of several Trump casinos, and then moved on. The two men parted on cordial terms and remained in occasional contact.

Suddenly, Trump seemed to be everywhere, raising questions as the moneyed spokesman of the birther cause, willing to finance private investigators and a Hawaiian fact-finding mission. Someone had to do something, had to get to the bottom of exactly where the nation's president was born. Trump alone could do it.

It was all, Pinkett thought, a bit much, quite offensive and an echo of Trump's continuous résumé check back in 2005. Only now, what Trump was doing was much more serious. He was doubting the most basic credential — natural-born citizenship — of the nation's first African American president. He was trying to render the Obama presidency illegitimate.

It was bad for American democracy and the democratization of opportunity that Obama's 2008 election seemed to symbolize, Pinkett thought. Pinkett called Trump. They talked.

The Trump campaign has refused to engage detailed questions related to birtherism or Trump's thinking on race. So, what follows is Pinkett's recollection of the conversation and Pinkett's only.

Pinkett told Trump in no uncertain terms exactly how this sort of behavior — particularly when it goes on and on — looks. He told Trump how it feels to be on the other end. He warned Trump that this was behavior that would be understood by a lot of people of color who had been through this sort of thing at their jobs, at parent-teacher conferences, when making a major purchase and so many other moments marred by someone else's disbelief, their sense of authority and superiority based on nothing more than race. It would be regarded as offensive.

And it would damage Trump's brand. Beyond that, the birther cause — populated by kooks resistant to facts — would die down without the publicity Trump alone could draw. Trump was giving a racist movement a ride on his coattails, Pinkett said.

"I left that conversation with the sense that this man," Pinkett said, "this towering figure in American business and a person who I think no one would dispute has some sort of particular talent at reading people, reading the market and selling what people want, had somehow missed or come to resent a new American reality.

"The era when only certain people — people who were not black, Latino or Asian — could hold certain jobs, do certain things, live in certain places or lead on certain issues was over. He seemed remarkably out of touch."

Trump seemed to listen. But the birtherism went on. In retrospect, it was part of his early, unofficial campaign work.

In 2013, while attending an event that at the time Politico described as "featuring many potential 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls," Trump sat down with ABC News political reporter Jonathan Karl. The exchange is worth watching because he says that he believes that his advocacy for the Obama birther cause "resonated with a lot of people." But the takeaway is this:

"I have no idea," Trump said. "I don’t know, was there a birth certificate? You tell me. You know, some people say that was not his birth certificate. I’m saying I don’t know. Nobody knows. And you don’t know either."

We do know.

Obama, frustrated by ‘this silliness,’ produces detailed Hawaii birth certificate

Then, came 2015. Trump declared himself an official candidate in June that year. Two months later this exchange between Trump and NBC's Chuck Todd happened:

Todd: “Do you believe President Obama is a citizen who was born in the United States?”
Trump: “Well, I don’t like talking about it anymore because, honestly, I have my own feelings. I think he should have taken the $5 million. I don’t know why he spent $4 million in legal fees to keep his records away. Nobody has seen his records. I don’t know.”

Again, false. The Post's Fact Checker dug into rumors Obama "spent millions of dollars to conceal records that would indicate his true citizenship." The Fact Checker gave this claim four full Pinocchios.

Trump’s zombie claim that Obama spent $4 million to conceal school and passport records

We will stop there as this pretty much brings us to today.

Another "Apprentice" contestant, Omarosa Manigault, who is black, is leading Trump's black voter outreach team. She has a background in politics — on the Democratic side of the aisle. Pinkett runs his own business, advises others, does motivational speaking and has worked in Democratic Party politics. So, some think that's why he and  five other "Apprentice" contestants — Kevin Allen, Tara Dowdell, Marshawn Evans Daniels, James Sun and Kwame Jackson — deeply oppose Trump for president. They are all, also, people of color.

Trump has called them "six failing wannabes."

But here is the thing. Time and again, Trump has indicated that he sees something in people’s backgrounds — like, say, a place of birth or an aspect of their origin — that disqualifies them for membership in his America.

That is not a pattern that began this week.