Donald Trump has prided himself on having unerring instincts and a flair for showmanship, attributes that helped dispatch his Republican rivals in the primaries and that he hopes will land him in the White House in January. His handling of the birther issue — past and present — says just the opposite.
Trump’s performance Friday was a hurried and defensive effort to put to bed a lingering controversy that was suddenly resurrected because of his own stubbornness — and his unwillingness to acknowledge error or express regret. In trying to get beyond it on Friday, he compounded his error, perpetuating another falsehood about Hillary Clinton’s role while mischaracterizing his own actions over the five years since he first elevated the lies and conspiracy theories about whether President Obama was born in the United States.
His 31-word statement, delivered at his new hotel in Washington at the end of an infomercial and campaign rally combination, will not end the discussion. Given the questions he left hanging, it’s now impossible to believe that his role in perpetuating the birther issue will not become a topic of further discussion, much as Trump and his advisers want it to go away.
The danger for Trump is that the next time he might have to address the issue publicly will be with the biggest audience of the campaign watching, at the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University. What any smart campaign would have dealt with long ago now lingers with just seven weeks left before the election.
Clinton refused to let the issue drop in the hours after Trump’s Friday statement. “The birther lie is what turned Trump from a reality TV star into a political figure,” she tweeted. Will she not challenge Trump on it at the debate? Many Democrats would accuse her of malpractice if she does not. Just as likely, the issue will be raised by NBC’s Lester Holt, who will moderate the first debate. Is Trump prepared to offer an apology or expression of regret if confronted in that forum?
Trump’s new campaign team had served him well over the past few weeks, bringing greater discipline to his message (by forcing him to deliver speeches from a teleprompter), having him offer policy proposals designed to appeal to voters where his support is weaker than it should be (even while raising questions of how the arithmetic adds up or the ideology fits with traditional GOP conservatism) and avoiding, where possible, unforced errors.
The strategy in part helped turn what once was a clear Clinton advantage in the polls into competitive contests in many battleground states. Meanwhile, Clinton was stumbling through one of the worst stretches of her campaign, a descent from the lofty post-convention weeks, when Trump was floundering, to fresh controversy over emails, the Clinton Foundation and questions about her guardedness.
But Trump’s team proved unequal to a candidate determined to play by his own rules and who had famously remarked that his advisers could say what they wanted about him but that only he could say what he believed. Somehow, Trump managed to change the discussion at the worst possible moment.
It’s not as if he hadn’t been forewarned that the birther issue remained a problem. More than once in recent weeks, he was asked about it. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly put the question to him earlier this month, linking Trump’s history on the issue to the candidate’s calls to African American voters to give him a fresh look. He dismissed those questions. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore, he said without giving a straightforward answer.
Inquiries about what Trump believed prompted campaign advisers to claim that he now accepted that Obama’s birthplace was the United States. The candidate, however, would never confirm those claims, leaving the issue to fester. When The Washington Post’s Robert Costa asked Trump about the issue aboard the candidate’s airplane on Wednesday night, Trump hedged, once again too clever by half — and the issue blew up in his face.
The publication of Costa’s report Thursday evening set off a scramble inside Trump’s campaign. Just after 10:15 p.m., a tortured statement was issued in the name of the campaign’s communications director that gave political spin a bad name. It asserted anew that Trump did accept that Obama was born in the United States, although the statement was still in someone else’s voice. It also repeated the false claim that it was Clinton who had given birth to birtherism during the 2008 campaign.
That assertion is based in part on a memo written in March 2007 by Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, urging the campaign to make note of Obama’s “lack of American roots.” His advice was dismissed by others in the campaign. Some Clinton supporters distributed emails toward the end of the 2008 primaries spreading rumors that questioned Obama’s birthplace. Other claims have been offered but without any evidence that Clinton or her campaign did what Trump’s team has asserted, according to fact checkers.
The campaign’s Thursday night statement also sought to make Trump the hero of the whole story for having prompted Obama to release his long-form birth certificate and thereby answer the question of his birthplace once and for all, as if it were actually in doubt. The campaign email said, “Mr. Trump did a great service to the president and the country by bringing closure to the issue.”
That last statement could not withstand even the skimpiest of scrutiny. Trump himself never accepted that version of events. If he had actually ended the controversy in the spring of 2011, he somehow refused to act on it, continuing to raise doubts about Obama’s birthplace for years afterward, insinuating there was still something fishy there.
Trump’s behavior helped give comfort to the many Americans who still believed that Obama was neither born in the United States nor a Christian. It is not surprising that African Americans and others see racism at the root of this ugly chapter of the Obama presidency.
Trump’s decisions to push the birther issue in 2011 and then not give it up even after the president’s birth certificate was released will always be part of his history. He cannot wash it away with one terse statement and an exhortation to everyone to move on. Voters can judge him on the totality of that record.