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What The Trump Campaign Said About Birtherism, Annotated

Obama's birth certificate, as released by the White House
White House
Obama's birth certificate, as released by the White House

Donald Trump finally addressed whether he believes the current president was, indeed, born in the United States. "President Obama was born in the United States. Period," he said Friday morning.

It's yet another surreal storyline in the 2016 presidential campaign. Five years ago, Trump became the loudest voice in the so-called "birther" movement, advancing the false claim that President Obama was born outside the United States. Though his campaign insisted he believes Obama was born in the U.S. in a Thursday night statement, it was only on Friday morning that Trump finally said so himself. In its statement, the campaign also made the baseless claim that Hillary Clinton "raised the issue" that President Obama was not born in the U.S.

Aside from providing a secondhand answer about Trump's birther beliefs, the statement was also an excellent illustration of the Trump campaign's playbook. Here's an annotation of what the campaign said in a statement last night:

Hillary Clinton's campaignfirst raised this issue to smear then-candidate Barack Obama in her very nasty, failed 2008 campaign for President.

Journalists and fact-checking sites have repeatedly debunked this theory. Politifact and FactCheck.org write that 2008 Clinton supporters were early sources of the rumor that President Obama was born overseas, but that there was no evidence that Clinton or her campaign staffers had anything to do with it. Other journalists found the same thing, FactCheck points out.

This continues a Trump campaign pattern of spreading misinformation. Of all the Trump statements Politifact has checked, 70 percent have been found "mostly false," "false," or "pants on fire." Clinton's figure is 28 percent.

It is true that the 2008 Clinton campaign believed President Obama's multicultural heritage could put him at a disadvantage. Clinton pollster Mark Penn framed this in a memo, as highlighted by theWashington Post's Dave Weigel:

"All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural, and putting that in a new light. Save it for 2050. It also exposes a very strong weakness for him his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited."

But Weigel also notes that the Clinton campaign quickly shot down any talk within the campaign of Obama's "otherness": an Iowa campaign worker, Judy Rose, was fired after she wrote in an email that Obama was a Muslim.

This "Clinton started it" line of attack isn't new for Trump; he (and Ted Cruz as well) brought it up in late 2015. Interestingly, though, continuing to use it now also continues the Trump campaign's recent "mirror" defense pattern, in which he turns attacks launched against him back against the Clinton campaign.

It's not entirely clear where the conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside the U.S. started. Politico has reported that the theory first emerged in the spring of 2008 when Clinton supporters passed around an anonymous email claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. The theory was then latched on to by the right and eventually Donald Trump in 2011, when he called for Obama to release his birth certificate.

This type of vicious and conniving behavior is straight from the Clinton Playbook. As usual, however, Hillary Clinton was too weak to get an answer.

Continuing on the (again, baseless) premise that Clinton started the birther theory, the Trump campaign instead tries to advance two of its anti-Clinton narratives: that she is untrustworthy and that she is not strong enough to be president.

The "conniving" plays into Clinton's ugly poll numbers, showing that many voters believe she is not trustworthy — Trump has fully embraced this idea by dubbing her "Crooked Hillary." "Weak" plays into Clinton's recent bout of pneumonia, as well as Trump's prior statements that she doesn't have the "stamina" to be president. Here, he's saying that she's politically weak as well.

Even theMSNBC show Morning Joeadmits that it was Clinton's henchmen who first raised this issue, not Donald J. Trump.

The Trump campaign here points to a video from 2015 in which hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, as well as journalist John Heilemann, say that Clinton did indeed start the rumors.

The show seems to have since backed off somewhat — Friday morning, Scarborough acknowledged that FactCheck has found that Clinton supporters were the ones who advanced the idea in 2008. However, he also highlighted an incident from 2008 in which Obama accused Clinton of not doing enough to shut down her supporters' (and Judy Rose's) rumors about his religion.

Bringing Morning Joe into it is also part of a well-worn Trump pattern, as he has been denouncing the MSNBC morning show for months. Though the show was criticized for being too friendly to Trump earlier in the campaign. it has since ramped up its criticisms of Trump. He has responded with a series of insulting tweets about the show and its hosts.

In 2011, Mr. Trump was finally able to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate. Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised. Inarguably, Donald J. Trump is a closer.

The birther theory's racial overtones — and moreover, the fact that it's not true — are potentially damaging on the Trump campaign at a time when he's trying to broaden his support. But then again, if he disavows his birther statements, he risks alienating those supporters who believe Obama was born overseas.

So this is the Trump campaign's attempted spin on the whole incident: that in embracing and advancing a conspiracy theory, Trump won, and Clinton lost. That concept of "winning" is central to the message Trump has crafted on the campaign trail.

Having successfully obtained President Obama's birth certificate when others could not, Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States.

This is called burying the lede. What everyone wanted to know was whether Trump believes Obama was born in the United States. This statement waited until the second-to-last sentence to answer the question.

Mr. Trump is now totally focused on bringing jobs back to America, defeating radical Islamic terrorism, taking care of our veterans, introducing school choice opportunities and rebuilding and making our inner cities safe again.

The final bit of spin seems to be that Trump considers the untrue birther theory (which he pushed heavily five years ago) a silly topic, and that he's ready to get back to serious policy debates.

Jason Miller, Senior Communications Advisor

Once again, this statement came from a campaign staffer, not Trump himself. Trump did finally clarify Friday saying he does believe Obama was born in the U.S. This was just a day after he contradicted his campaign manager on the topic in aWashington Post interview. When asked about Conway's statements that Trump does think Obama was born in the U.S., Trump responded, "It's okay. She's allowed to speak what she thinks. I want to focus on jobs. I want to focus on other things."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.