The birth of the Obama 'birther' conspiracy

  • Published
Donald Trump speaks at his hotel in Washington, DCImage source, Getty Images

Republican Donald Trump asserted that Democrat Hillary Clinton and her campaign team first raised questions about Barack Obama's birthplace in 2008 - and that he was the man who settled the issue in 2011.

The truth, however, is markedly different.

As a preface to this latest turn in the Obama "birther" row, it should be noted that the location of Mr Obama's birth is generally considered irrelevant to whether Mr Obama is eligible to serve as US president. As long as he has one parent who was a US citizen, as Mr Obama's Kansas-born mother was, he is considered by the US government to be a "natural born citizen". That - along with being at least 35 years of age and resident in the US for 14 years - is the only necessary constitutional requirement for the presidency.

Now, according to fact-checkers and contemporary media reports, questions about Mr Obama's birthplace began circulating among disgruntled Clinton supporters in the last months of her ill-fated campaign against the then-Senator Obama in 2008.

It was desperate times in the Clinton camp, and the candidate did not always acquit herself well, such as when she said that Mr Obama was not a Muslim "as far as I know". But there is no evidence of ties between her and her campaign staff and the Obama birthplace allegations.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Prior to Hillary Clinton's endorsement of Barack Obama in June 2008, some of her supporters circulated rumours about his birthplace

In June 2008 the Obama campaign released a photocopy of his short-form "certificate of live birth" showing that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on 4 August, 1961. (Reporters also unearthed a contemporaneous birth announcement published in a Hawaiian newspaper.)

This was not enough for some conspiracy-minded Obama critics, however, who questioned the authenticity of the document and demanded the "long-form" certificate from the Democrat's birth hospital.

During the general election campaign the rumours spread to the fringes of the right - evidenced most notably when a woman at a John McCain rally told the Republican candidate that Mr Obama was an "Arab".

Image source, AP
Image caption,
White House copy of President Obama's birth certificate from Hawaii

Senator McCain took away her microphone and informed her she was wrong.

"Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don't have to be scared of as president of the United States," he said.

From there, the conspiracy theories continued to simmer on the right in the early days of Mr Obama's first term in office. Orly Taitz, a conservative activist, filed lawsuits challenging the president's eligibility to serve - but all were quickly dismissed from US courts.

Enter Donald Trump.

In March 2011, he first began mentioning that he had "real doubts" about whether Mr Obama had a US birth certificate.

In the days that followed, he said he was sending a team of private investigators to Hawaii to learn the truth and promised to donate $5m to charity if anyone could convince him Mr Obama was born on US soil.

On 27 April, 2011, the Obama White House released his original "long-form" birth certificate.

In a press release on Thursday night and on stage in Washington, DC, on Friday morning, this is the moment Mr Trump pointed to as the "great service" he performed in laying to rest questions about Mr Obama's birthplace.

The truth here, however, is also markedly different.

Over the following years, Mr Trump continued to raise questions and express doubts.

In 2012 he tweeted that he had an "extremely credible source" who told him the birth certificate was a fraud.

In 2013 he raised suspicion about the death of a Hawaiian health official who verified copies of Mr Obama's "birth certificate".

In 2014 he asked hackers to access Mr Obama's college records and check his "place of birth".

As recently as this month, Mr Trump did not back away from his past support of the "birther" cause.

"I don't talk about it because if I talk about that, your whole thing will be about that," Trump said. "So I don't talk about it."

Mr Trump did talk about it on Friday - and he's right, it's all anyone is going to write about.