After his major address on the deficit two weeks ago, President Obama sat down for an interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos expecting a conversation about fiscal issues.
Instead, Obama faced repeated questions about the controversy surrounding his place of birth, which had escalated in recent weeks as potential Republican candidate Donald Trump made it the centerpiece of his platform. Although the questions were politely couched as coming from the political fringe, the interview added to the growing sense within the White House that the mainstream media was perpetuating a dangerous myth.
Obama had grown incredulous at the overall debate. He had watched as even Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan had been sucked into the discussion of his birthplace, aides said. In his own interview prep sessions, Obama was warned that the “birther” subject might arise – even though it had subsided from the headlines for more than two years since the presidential campaign. Finally, on April 19, in a meeting with White House counsel Bob Bauer, the president asked about the feasibility of getting his long-form birth certificate at last.
“It wasn’t one specific thing” that tipped the scales, a senior administration official said. But Trump was a major factor, by the White House’s own admission, as the real estate mogul’s near-constant interviews extended a discussion that the president found “frivolous.” Last week, it was Obama who made the call to proceed. “He was the driving force,” the official said.
The swift action that followed — in less than 10 days, Obama’s lawyers were able to obtain the legal waivers necessary to bring copies of the certificate back to the White House – raised questions about the timing. Why, for example, did Obama officials wait so long to tamp down rumors that have dogged the president since the 2008 presidential campaign? Why did they release the forms on the very day that Trump is making his first visit to New Hampshire, and during a week when Obama is slated to make other major announcements about his national security team?
According to senior administration officials, the timeframe was the result of Obama’s personal request for a resolution – and reflected his impatience with political frivolity of any kind. At the same time, officials said they wanted to release the paperwork as quickly as possible after receiving it, to pre-empt any further conspiracy theories about whether it had been doctored.
Officials denied there were any more complex political considerations at play. And from a legal standpoint, there appeared to be no question that Wednesday’s announcement was the culmination of several days of secret, intense maneuvering. After years of legal successes – some 70 lawsuits challenging Obama’s birthplace had been dismissed by the courts – the legal team took the extraordinary step of reopening a case that they themselves considered closed.
The process began early in the week of April 18, after Obama raised the subject. White House counsel Bauer reviewed the legal steps necessary to obtain the long-form document, which is not routinely released by authorities in Hawaii.
On April 21, Bauer said he asked the president’s outside counsel, Judy Corley, a lawyer at the firm Perkins Coie, to contact the Hawaii Department of Health to find out what additional requirements would be necessary. The following day, April 22, Obama signed a letter to state officials requesting the documents, which they said could be made available the following Monday, April 25. Corley flew to Honolulu, returning the documents to the White House on Tuesday night.
When administration officials released the paperwork on Wednesday morning shortly after 9 a.m., it came as a shock to the political establishment. White House officials moved quickly to explain how it had come about, holding briefings with reporters, releasing the paperwork via Twitter and then sending the president to the podium in the White House briefing room.
They repeatedly said the new documents were no more valid than the old ones posted during the presidential campaign -- in fact, they are less so.
“There is a specific statute that governs access to and inspection of vital records in the state of Hawaii. The birth certificate that we posted online is, in fact, and always has been, and remains, the legal birth certificate of the President that would be used for all legal purposes that any resident of Hawaii would want to use a birth certificate for,” Bauer said.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, too, described it as a previously decided matter. But, he said: “The fact that it was a settled issue did not keep it from becoming a major part of the political discussion in this town for the last several weeks here. So there’s absolutely no question that what the president released in 2008 was his birth certificate and answered that question, and many of your organizations have done excellent reporting which proved that to be the case. But it continued; the president thought it was a sideshow and chose to take this step today.”
Aides acknowledged that there would have been a potential upside to keeping the obviously outrageous myth alive. “He did that despite the fact that it probably was…probably in his long-term political interests to allow this birther debate to dominate discussion in the Republican Party for months to come,” Pfeiffer said. “But he thought even though it might have been good politics, he thought it was bad for the country. And so he asked counsel to look into this.”