Few of the revelations are likely to match the one reported by the New York Times on Tuesday afternoon. Trump, whose insistence upon his own genius and intellect is unmatched, was apparently insecure enough about his ability to master standardized testing that he reportedly paid someone else to take the SAT for him as a high school senior in the early 1960s. It’s a revelation which undercuts much of the narrative Trump has constructed around himself, further eroding his already shaky self-description as a “very stable genius.”
But there’s another layer worth mentioning here. This allegation from Mary Trump is significant, too, because it overlaps with another pattern we’ve seen frequently from Trump: It suggests that Trump did something which he’d previously falsely accused President Barack Obama of doing.
You may recall that Trump’s original attempt to secure the Republican nomination in 2011 attempted to stir up attention and support by alleging that Obama was not born in the United States. This conspiracy theory — heavily dependent on the same undercurrent of otherness that Trump leveraged in 2015 — was both unsubstantiated and obviously false. But it got Trump the attention he sought.
That, though, was only part of Trump’s effort to undermine the then-president. In an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity in April 2011, Trump went further — with Hannity’s encouragement.
Hannity speculated that maybe Obama didn’t want to show his birth certificate (though he’d already shared documentation of his birthplace) because it might somehow indicate that Obama was Muslim. Trump then ran through a litany of accusations.
“Look, he was born Barry Soetero, somewhere along the line, he changed his name,” Trump claimed, falsely. “I heard he had terrible marks and he ends up in Harvard.”
Where Trump heard this isn’t specified. If he heard it at all, it was probably from somewhere in the swampier parts of conservative media. But here we have Trump’s introduction of this theory: Obama managed to get into Harvard … somehow.
The allegation at this point centered specifically on Obama’s intelligence, with Trump going on to disparage Obama’s writing, specifically what he described as a drop in quality between Obama’s first book (which Trump claimed had been ghostwritten) and the second.
He returned to the subject a bit later.
“You know, I wrote many bestsellers,” Trump said. “And also, number one bestsellers including ‘The Art of the Deal.’ I know something about writing. And I want to tell you, the guy that wrote the first book didn’t write the second book.”
The irony, of course, is that Trump didn’t write “The Art of the Deal.” It was written by author Tony Schwartz (who has subsequently expressed regret at doing so).
“The first book is Ernest Hemingway plus. The second book was written by somebody that was much more average,” Trump added later. “How do you have average marks — how do you have bad marks and get into Harvard?”
That question takes on a new light, given Mary Trump’s book. How do you get into the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, despite dubious abilities? Pay someone to take the SAT maybe. And perhaps, have your brother — Mary’s father, in fact — lobby the admission’s officer.
Again, there’s no evidence that Obama engaged in any underhanded techniques to get into Harvard. His aptitude is by now well established. While he never released any transcripts of his time in college, neither did Trump. In fact, Trump had his personal attorney threaten Fordham University (the first college he attended) with legal action should it release records from his time there.
A few days later, Trump revisited this theme during a speech at a tea party event in Florida.
“He had lousy marks in school, and he got into Harvard on a scholarship. Explain that one,” he said. “By the way, I have friends that have kids that have all As that have the highest aptitude test, they can’t get into Harvard. They can’t get into Wharton either, by the way, which I’m very proud to tell you. But they can’t get into Harvard.”
The “aptitude test” to which Trump refers is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT.
Part of this was simply a reinforcement of the idea that Obama might have gotten into these prestigious universities by virtue of claiming to be a foreign student (which he didn’t do). But less than two weeks after Trump’s interview with Hannity (one of many to follow as he sought the presidency), Obama put the final nail in that coffin, releasing a long-form version of his birth certificate. It reinforced that the president was, in fact, born in Hawaii.
Trump quickly took credit for the move — and pivoted back to his question about Obama’s academic history.
“Are you prepared to say today that all these issues should be put to the side and that you accept that Mr. Obama is who he said he is?” a reporter asked Trump on the day the certificate was published.
“No,” Trump replied.
“Do you still think there are legitimate issues?” he was asked.
“The word is, according to what I’ve read, was that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental,” Trump said. “He then gets to Columbia. He then gets to Harvard. I heard at Columbia, he wasn’t a very good student and then gets to Harvard. How do you get into Harvard if you’re not a good student?"
“Now, maybe that’s right or maybe it’s wrong,” he added. “But I don’t know why he doesn’t release his records.”
While Trump did return to questioning Obama’s place of birth, he also maintained this assertion that Obama was hiding something in his academic background. On Jan. 19, 2012, he demanded that Obama release his college transcripts. On May 2 of that year, he did again. Nine days later, he criticized the media for investigating Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in that fall’s presidential contest, while not finding Obama’s transcripts. Again and again, six more times by mid-October, Trump made the same request.
Then he upped the ante.
“If Obama opens up and gives his college records and applications and if he gives his passport applications and records,” Trump announced, “I will give to a charity of his choice — inner-city children of Chicago, American Cancer Society, AIDS research, anything he wants — a check, immediately, for $5 million.”
Sean Hannity quickly endorsed the idea.
For the last two weeks before the 2012 election, Trump repeatedly insisted that Obama should turn over records from his college career in exchange for this charitable donation. (This wouldn’t have come from his notorious foundation, since it didn’t have $5 million to give at the time.) It was a political ploy which Obama predictably ignored, but again, it got Trump some attention.
A poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in May 2016 found that Trump’s conspiracy theories about Obama were shared by his supporters. Three-quarters said that they thought it was or might be true that Obama was hiding important information about his background.
Trump demanding over and over, scores of times, that Obama produce evidence that his academic achievements were legitimate, proof no one acting in good faith actually needed. In light of Mary Trump’s book, it’s the insistence itself which is interesting. According to Trump’s niece, he himself had gotten into a prestigious college using underhanded methods.
Speaking to Hannity in April 2011, Trump suggested that Obama was simply coasting on luck.
“I mean, this guy really is leading a charmed life,” Trump said of the son of an immigrant from Kenya who was raised by a single mother. “I have to be honest with you.”