Just when it appeared that public interest was fading, celebrity developer Donald Trump has revived the theory that President Barack Obama was born overseas and helped expose the depth to which the notion has taken root—a New York Times poll Thursday found that a plurality of Republicans believe it.
If you haven’t been trolling the fever swamps of online conspiracy sites or opening those emails from Uncle Larry, you may well wonder: Where did this idea come from? Who started it? And is there a grain of truth there?
The answer lies in Democratic, not Republican politics, and in the bitter, exhausting spring of 2008. At the time, the Democratic presidential primary was slipping away from Hillary Clinton and some of her most passionate supporters grasped for something, anything that would deal a final reversal to Barack Obama. (See: Bachmann: Birther issue settled)
The theory’s proponents are a mix of hucksters and earnest conspiracy theorists, including prominently a lawyer who previously devoted himself to ‘proving’ that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job. Its believers are primarily people predisposed to dislike Obama. That willingness to believe the worst about officials of the opposite party is a common feature of presidential rumor-mongering: In 2006, an Ohio State University/Scripps Howard poll found that slightly more than half of Democrats said they suspected the Bush Administration of complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks.
While there is no grain of truth to either fantasy, there’s something else when it comes to Obama: A visceral reaction against him, a deep sense that the first black president, with liberal views and a Muslim name, must be—in some concrete, provable way—foreign. (See: Mitt: Obama born here. Period.)
A brief history of birtherism
Birtherism is the latest and most enduring version of a theory in search of facts.
The original smear against Obama was that he was a crypto-Muslim, floated in 2004 by perennial Illinois political candidate and serial litigant Andy Martin. Other related versions of this theory alleged that Obama was educated in an Indonesian “madrassa” or steeped in Islamist ideology from a young age, and the theories began to spread virally after Obama appeared on the national stage – to the casual observer, from nowhere – with his early 2007 presidential campaign announcement. (See: Obama kin: Birther rumors 'a shame'
All through that year, the Obama campaign – with the affirmation of most leaders of both parties – aggressively battled that smear by emphasizing his Christian faith. Obama’s controversial but emphatically Christian pastor emerged as a campaign issue and the belief that he was a Muslim seemed to lose traction. (See: Clinton: Birther claims 'ludicrous'
Then, as Obama marched toward the presidency, a new suggestion emerged: That he was not eligible to serve. (See: Birther debate alive across U.S.)
That theory first emerged in the spring of 2008, as Clinton supporters circulated an anonymous email questioning Obama’s citizenship.
“Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth,” asserted one chain email that surfaced on the urban legend site Snopes.com in April 2008.
Another early version of the theory, reported by the Chicago Tribune in June 2008, depended on a specious legal theory that was, for a time, the heart of the argument: that Obama was born in Hawaii but had a Kenyan father, and his mother was only 18 years old. Therefore, under existing immigration law, he was not eligible for automatic citizenship upon birth — a claim that depended on an understandable, but incorrect, reading of immigration law. Other theories suggested that Obama lost his U.S. citizenship when he moved to Indonesia or visited Pakistan in violation of a supposed State Department ban as a young man. (There was no such ban.)
But it dawned on even the most stubborn anti-Obama lawyers that federal courts were not going to recognize their exotic theories of citizenship, and they narrowed their focus on a claim that, if true, might have disqualified Obama, and resonated with the impulse to view him as foreign.
No single author claims parentage for this theory, now advanced by Trump. Even Martin disavows what became the heart of contemporary birther theory – that the president was born in Kenya and smuggled back into the country.
“I’m absolutely convinced he was born in Hawaii,” he told POLITICO.
Jerome Corsi, who would later become a prominent proponent of birther theories, neglected to mention the Obama birth cover-up conspiracy in his 2008 book, “Obama Nation,” instead claiming, without evidence, that Obama maintained both American and Kenyan citizenship. He didn’t respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.
But while the identity of the First Birther is lost to the mists of chain email, one of the first to put his name to the theory was Phil Berg, a former Pennsylvania deputy attorney general who had spent the previous years accusing President George W. Bush of complicity in the Sept. 11 attack.
Berg filed a complaint in federal District court on August 21, 2008 that alleged, “Obama carries multiple citizenships and is ineligible to run for President of the United States. United States Constitution, Article II, Section 1.”
“All the efforts of supporters of legitimate citizens were for nothing because the Obama cheated his way into a fraudulent candidacy and cheated legitimately eligible natural born citizens from competing in a fair process and the supporters of their citizen choice for the nomination,” the suit claims.
Ironically, the birther movement didn’t really take off in earnest until the Obama team tried to debunk it.
In June 2008, National Review conservative blogger Jim Geraghty, after debunking a number of conspiracy theories about Obama floated by fellow conservatives, asked the Obama campaign to “return the favor” and just release his birth certificate to the public to put to rest questions about both Obama’s birth and whether, as enemies claimed, his middle name was “Mohammed.”
A few days later, the Obama campaign did exactly that.
They posted Obama’s certificate of live birth on their “Fight the Smears” website and gave a copy to the liberal website Daily Kos. It was greeted with immediate cries that it was a fake.
But Geraghty was satisfied, writing “this document is what he or someone authorized by him was given by the state out of its records. Barring some vast conspiracy within the Hawaii State Department of Health, there is no reason to think his [original] birth certificate would have any different data.”
But others were not swayed. The release of the certificate was declared a forgery. Some bloggers pounced, saying it had Adobe Photoshop watermarks that suggested tampering, that it lacked a raised seal, that it lacked a signature and a number of other accusations.
So began round two.
FactCheck.org, the non-partisan website, was allowed to examine the physical copy of the birth certificate in August 2008, and concluded it was real, that it had a raised seal, a signature and met all the State Department criteria for proof of citizenship. Combined with the state’s recognition that the record was real—and contemporary newspaper announcements of Obama’s birth, submitted by the hospitals —they concluded that he was a natural born citizen.
Hawaii has repeatedly confirmed the document’s authenticity.
“I, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the Hawai’i State Department of Health, have seen the original vital records maintained on file by the Hawai’i State Department of Health verifying Barrack (sic) Hussein Obama was born in Hawai’i and is a natural-born American citizen,” one exasperated state official said in 2008 and again in 2009 in a statement.
“Of course, it’s distantly possible that Obama’s grandparents may have planted the announcement just in case their grandson needed to prove his U.S. citizenship in order to run for president someday,” FactCheck concluded. But, “those who choose to go down that path should first equip themselves with a high-quality tinfoil hat.”
Birthers have provided no serious response to this evidence, though the technicalities can confuse a casual observer.
The website World Net Daily, for instance, has written that “Hawaii at the time of Obama’s birth allowed births that took place in foreign countries to be registered in Hawaii.” This is true, but such a birth certificate would show the actual foreign place of birth instead of listing – as Obama’s does — Honolulu.
In addition to declaring the document a forgery, the birther movement’s main response – echoed by the ill-informed Trump - has been to claim that only a “long form” birth certificate can be valid. But the document shown by Obama is the only one the State of Hawaii is permitted, by law, to release. It is accepted as valid by the government entities like the State Department.
Hawaii law prevents the long-form record from being photocopied or released to anyone — including Obama. Obama himself would only be permitted to inspect it – not copy it or post it online.
Fukino, an appointee of Linda Lingle, the former Republican governor and John McCain supporter, twice inspected the certificate. According to NBC News’ investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, the certificate is in a bound volume, in a file cabinet in the Hawaii Department of Health.
“Why would a Republican governor — who was stumping for the other guy — hold out on a big secret?” asked Fukino.
By the summer of 2009, then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs summarized how convoluted the theory had become with each round of disclosures.
“A pregnant woman leaves her home to go overseas to have a child — who there’s not a passport for — so is in cahoots with someone…to smuggle that child, that previously doesn’t exist on a government roll somewhere back into the country and has the amazing foresight to place birth announcements in the Hawaii newspapers? All while this is transpiring in cahoots with those in the border, all so some kid named Barack Obama could run for President 46 and a half years later,” said Gibbs dismissively. “You couldn’t sell this script in Hollywood.”
The forgeries and the lawsuits
As Obama built a commanding lead in the polls, and was eventually became President-elect, a host of lawsuits were filed to prevent him from taking the oath of office. These lawsuits were combined with a letter-writing campaign to presidential electors as well as a fringe media campaign questioning Obama’s citizenship.
Berg’s August 2008 lawsuit wasn’t the last. A few days after Obama decisively won the election, Alan Keyes — Obama’s former opponent in the 2004 Senate race and a presidential candidate — filed a suit against the Secretary of State in California over Obama’s eligibility. Another suit was filed by a New Jersey man, Leo Donofrio.
A California dentist and lawyer, Orly Taitz, filed another round of suits. Every citizenship suit has been dismissed, and courts have slapped or threatened fines on some of the filers, including Taitz.
And with both the law and the facts against them, birthers have sought to create facts and documents of their own.
Taitz unveiled a purported Kenyan birth certificate in the summer of 2009. It was clearly a hoax – the Republic of Kenya didn’t exist when Obama was born, it was dated three years after his actual birth date, it didn’t match other contemporary Kenyan birth certificates and an anonymous blogger took credit for it, demonstrating with photos how the birthers were “punked” and how he produced the fake certificate.
“Fine cotton business paper: $11. Inkjet printer: $35,” wrote the blogger. “Punkin’ the Birthers: Priceless.”
A second Kenyan certificate was put on eBay in 2009, and Taitz again try to have it admitted into court as evidence, despite being an obvious hoax. And yet another hoax showed a fake sign that reads “Welcome to Kenya, Birthplace of Barack Obama” – that is both clearly Photoshopped and contains Arabic script welcoming visitors to a city in the United Arab Emirates.
The birther purge
In a 2008 story about campaign rumors concerning both Obama and McCain, POLITICO reported “whichever candidate wins, these campaign trail rumors will haunt his presidency.”
The Republican Party has approached the issue with trepidation, but a 2010 poll found more than a quarter of Americans have doubts about President Obama’s birthplace.
During the 2010 midterm campaigns, a number of Republican candidates went on record expressing doubts about President Obama’s birth. Rep. Nathan Deal, now Governor of Georgia, jumped on the birther bandwagon, becoming the first member of Congress to request Obama’s birth certificate.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said, “I personally don’t have standing to bring litigation in court, but I support conservative legal organizations and others who would bring that to court.” Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) told a voter that she agreed with her that the President wasn’t a natural-born citizen — only to walk back her statements.
The party’s most prominent leaders, however, have firmly dismissed the notion and sought to purge birthers both from the Republican Party and from the comments section of conservative blogs.
“I believe the president was born in the United States. There are real reasons to get this guy out of office,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said recently.
“I don’t question the authenticity of his birth certificate, but I do question what planet he’s from when I look at his policies,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty joked.
Erick Erickson, editor of the influential conservative blog RedState publicly excommunicated the birthers from his site in 2010.
“If you think 9/11 was an inside job or you really want to debate whether or not Barack Obama is an American citizen eligible to be President, RedState is not a place for you,” he wrote.
Some Republicans take the position out of a basic respect for facts, but they also worry about its consequences for their party.
“It makes us look weird. It makes us look crazy. It makes us look demented. It makes us look sick, troubled, and not suitable for civilized company,” one of the first conservatives to turn against the birthers, talk show host Michael Medved, said in 2009. “I’m not a conspiracist, but this could be a very big conspiracy to make conservatives disgrace themselves.”
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