Sheriff Joe Arpaio looked out at a wall of television cameras and started to raise his voice. The rant that followed was confused, rambling and aimed directly at President Obama.
“Show. Us. The. Mircofilm,” he demanded. “I said it a while back. Show. Us. The. Microfilm. And we’ll all go back home and forget this! Where is the microfilm? Where is the microfilm? Is it in Hawaii? The Department of Health? What’s the big secret?”
Even for a notoriously eccentric Arizona politician like Arpaio, the spectacle he created on Tuesday at a news conference in Phoenix was on a whole other level.For months, the sheriff has been promoting the fringe conspiracy theory of birtherism, which claims Barack Obama’s birth certificate is fake and therefore he is ineligible to be president. But Arpaio took it to a grand scale with his latest stunt, promising to reveal “shocking” information about the document.
What he and his “investigator” ultimately presented, however, was something less than shocking. They spun new webs of the conspiracy, alleging secret codes were hidden in the birth certificate and claiming they found an elderly witness who could decipher the cryptography. It was the latest tweak to a theory that has long been debunked but remains kept alive by small pockets of conservative activists and writers.
Slightly more amusing, however, was just how high Arpaio was able to take the level of bizarre behavior and paranoia with the world watching through multiple live streams on the internet.
Mike Zullo, Arpaio’s volunteer “cold case” investigator who has been looking into the birth certificate for 10 months, told the crowd of local journalists that he and the sheriff had been threatened and were possibly in danger for uncovering the information. He said Arpaio personally assigned an armed deputy to tag along with him on a trip to Hawaii in May to protect him from potential threats. Zullo showed photos of Hawaiian police cars that he said were sent to intimidate them as they sleuthed around the islands looking for clues.
“It’s time for this charade to stop,” Zullo said. He claimed a grand a coverup was afoot. “This is a real long time to be looking into something…Eventually something’s gotta give.”
Arpaio, a Republican, was first elected to office in 1992 after promising common sense law enforcement. But now at 80 and running for his sixth term, he has aligned himself with the birthers and taken unarguably the strangest turn of his career. He dove head first into birtherism in September when he first assigned his “Cold Case Posse” to look into the certificate. From there, he has just kept following the birthers deeper into the fringe.
The group believes Obama somehow is not a natural born U.S. citizen and so is ineligible to be president. His Hawaiian birth certificate, they say, is a fake. Newspapers that reported his birth at the time are part of the conspiracy. No amount of evidence is enough to convince them that he is legitimately their president.
It’s not clear whether the pursuit of the conspiracy has helped or hurt Arpaio politically. No independent polling has been done in his home base of Maricopa County. But his longtime spokeswoman, Lisa Allen, scolded local reporters on Tuesday for their treatment of the subject in recent months.
“The media has demeaned this investigation at every turn as silly and wasteful,” Allen said. She asked the reporters to keep an open mind “if you can.”
The sheriff said in March that he had “probable cause” to show that the certificate was a forgery and that someone, though he would not say who, committed crimes in the process. He vowed the investigation would continue.
Then in May, he sent Zullo and the deputy to Hawaii to look into it even more. Paid for by taxpayers, the trip cost about $10,000 and included a nine-night stay in a Honolulu hotel, according to records posted online by Phoenix television journalist Brahm Resnik.
On Tuesday, Arpaio took to the microphone and said his new revelations should be national news. As if his presence there wasn’t enough already, a photo of him from a slightly younger age was blown up, placed next to his name and projected onto the wall behind him. The lectern in front of him also bore the words “Joe Arpaio Sheriff.”
While Zullo did most of the talking, Arpaio cut him off at one point. “I’m not taking a second seat to Mike Zullo,” the sheriff said.
Local reporters peppered Arpaio and Zullo with plenty of skeptical questions, including about the role of well known conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi in the investigation. Corsi, the men revealed, has been an integral part of it since the beginning. He even went to Hawaii with the investigators and helped them interview witnesses, Zullo said. Corsi was in the audience at the news conference, too.
Arpaio said he didn’t know where the investigation was going to go next. He hoped he could convince somebody else to take up the cause. He noted that Congress had spent months investigating an Arizona case known as “Fast and Furious,” which became the focus of a number of other conservative conspiracy theories.
“They’re looking at everything else,” Arpaio said. “I think this is very significant.”
Watch highlights from the news conference, compiled by TPM’s Clayton Ashley:
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him at email@example.com