DES MOINES, Iowa — When finally coming around to the fact President Barack Obama was born in the United States, Donald Trump tacked on a dig at his White House rival. It was Hillary Clinton, he said, who started the rumour that Obama was born abroad.
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it,” the Republican presidential nominee said last week. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”
But Trump’s new allegation that it was all Clinton’s fault is as untrue as his original lie. The public record over the past decade undermines his attempt to blame the Democratic nominee for the origins of a conspiracy Trump peddled for years.
People in Clinton’s orbit did discuss Obama’s background during their bitter primary struggle in 2008. But as nasty as that campaign got at times, it was not an anything-goes affair. And it appears that when Clinton got wind of smears about Obama’s roots or religion, she either shut down that line of argument or ignored it.
There is no evidence that Clinton herself has ever said Obama wasn’t born in America.
Trump, meanwhile, was for the past five years the primary propagator of the falsehood that Obama was not born in Hawaii in 1961, even though there was no serious question about Obama’s birthplace even before the president produced his birth certificate in 2011.
On Sunday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway cited three pieces of evidence to support her boss’ claim that Clinton was the original “birther.”
Here’s a closer look at evidence that is dubious at best, fails to tie the falsehood conclusively to Clinton herself and cannot compete with Trump’s yearslong effort to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first African-American president.
In an interview Sunday with CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Conway offered as a first piece of evidence an email that surfaced about a month before the January 2008 Iowa caucuses. Obama and Clinton, then U.S. senators, were at that time locked in a fierce campaign as stars atop the Democratic presidential field.
Judy Rose, Clinton’s top volunteer in a rural eastern Iowa county, had forwarded the chain email to eight fellow Democrats. It mentioned Obama’s father’s Kenyan ancestry and the father’s Muslim faith. But that email, which became public the following month, stated that Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii.”
The email falsely claimed Obama is a Muslim and equated Islam with support for overthrowing the U.S. government. “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level,” the email from an anonymous author stated.
Rose quit her unpaid volunteer post and Clinton’s national campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle contacted her counterpart in Obama’s campaign, David Plouffe, to apologize. It was clear, Obama’s team says, that Clinton was not behind the attempted smear.
“Having worked on that campaign, there was no point where we felt that Hillary Clinton was pushing these rumours,” said Tommy Vietor, Obama’s 2008 Iowa campaign spokesman and later a White House communications aide.
Questions about Obama’s place of birth did surface in an anonymous email in April 2008 that was circulated among some die-hard Clinton supporters, as Obama appeared headed toward the presidential nomination.
That email alleged that Obama’s U.S.-born mother was living in Kenya late in her pregnancy, was unable to travel and registered his birth in Hawaii after he was born. There is no evidence Clinton or her campaign team spread it around.
Conway also cited a memo by Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief pollster and media strategist in the 2008 campaign. It cites Obama’s “Lack of American Roots” as a liability.
“His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited,” Penn wrote, further suggesting Obama was “not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.” Penn went on to suggest Clinton draw attention to the idea “without going negative.”
In a race that had become personal and caustic, Clinton rejected out of hand the ideas that Penn did present, Solis Doyle said.
“I’m not saying we didn’t campaign hard against Obama,” she said. “It was a hard-fought, sometimes brutal campaign. But this would have delegitimized his identity. And, to us, that was beyond the pale.”
It is worth noting, too, there is no mention in the strategy proposal of Obama’s birthplace. “We are never going to say anything about his background—we have to show the value of ours,” Penn wrote.
By one account, an important unofficial adviser to Clinton did stoke rumours about Obama’s country of birth. Conway cited Clinton associate Sidney Blumenthal meeting the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers at the time, James Asher, and telling him Obama was born in Kenya.
Blumenthal has denied discussing the subject with Asher, who maintains he met with the Clinton confidant. McClatchy correspondents have said it’s true Asher asked them to look into Obama’s ties to Kenya. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Asher on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
But there is no dispute that Blumenthal, while close to Clinton, was not officially part of the campaign staff. The McClatchy newspapers found nothing to support the claim that Obama was born in Kenya.
Nor did Clinton’s campaign stir a pot that Trump would tend to for years.
“The ‘birther’ thing was never an issue that mattered in any conversation, rising to the level where we had to address it,” said Paul Tewes, a senior Obama campaign adviser in 2008. “In other words, I don’t believe the Clinton campaign was out there being malicious.”