The Origin Story Of The Big Lie That Hillary Clinton Started Birtherism

Douliery Olivier/Sipa USA USA
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When Donald Trump’s full-fledged birtherism makes headlines, conservatives are quick to claim that he didn’t start the movement to question whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States – actually, Hillary Clinton started the whole thing!

It’s a seductive line of defense, one that Trump reinvigorated in a speech on Friday morning, where, after five years of spouting innuendo and conspiracy theories, he finally unequivocally declared that “President Obama was born in the United States. Period.” Yet at the same time, he falsely accused Clinton of kicking off the birther controversy back in 2008.

That myth has been enthusiastically pushed by the right-wing media and, lately, parroted as fact by some of the mainstream media elite. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer claimed on the air Sept. 9 that the birther movement began “not with Hillary Clinton but some of her aides,” which is also demonstrably false.

As recently as September 2015, Trump was tweeting: “Just remember, the birther movement was started by Hillary Clinton in 2008. She was all in!”

Trump’s birtherism wasn’t born of a vaccum. So where did he get the false idea that it originated with Clinton or her campaign staff?

Although things certainly got nasty as the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination slipped out of Clinton’s hands and into those of the then-freshman senator from Illinois, there is no evidence that Clinton, or her campaign, started the rumors that Obama was not actually a U.S. citizen. Instead, the birther movement, which peaked when the sitting president of the United States was compelled to release his long-form birth certificate in 2011, first gained traction among a splinter cell of Clinton’s most ardent supporters.

Back in 2004, when Obama was an Illinois state senator, Andy Martin, a local political gadfly with a decades-long litigious record, first claimed that Obama was secretly a practicing Muslim. Around the time that Obama took the Democratic National Convention stage that year, a related rumor that Obama was radicalized in an Indonesian madrassa also had started to circulate.

A March 2007 memo obtained by Bloomberg, which is often erroneously regarded as a smoking gun, showed Clinton’s then-chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, make the case for attacking Obama’s “limited” relationship with American values because of his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia.

“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 it in a new light,” Penn wrote in the memo to Clinton. “It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.”

Poking holes in Obama’s American identity, however vile a tactic, is not the same as suggesting someone is not a natural-born American citizen. The memo contained no reference to Obama’s citizenship, and Clinton did not pursue the strategy that Penn outlined. Penn was fired from the campaign in April 2008.

In that same month, Obama’s presidential campaign was dogged by persistent rumors that he was not eligible to be president because he was born outside the United States, a notion pushed in an anonymous email that circulated among some supporters of the Clinton campaign.

“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,” the email chain read, according to Politico.

Just days after Clinton conceded in June 2008 and called for Democrats to unite behind Obama, The Daily Beast reported that one Clinton supporter took to a so-called PUMA site to suggest the senator’s election would be “illegal.” PUMA, or Party Unity My Ass, adherents were die-hard Clinton supporters who were virulently opposed to backing Obama.

That Texas-based Clinton volunteer, known as Linda Starr, later connected with Philip Berg, a former deputy Pennsylvania attorney general who had suggested George W. Bush was involved in the 9/11 terror attacks, to file one of the first lawsuits over Obama’s birth certificate.

Although Obama released his short-form birth certificate on June 12, 2008, the most unflagging birthers, Trump among them, were far from satisfied. Conspiracy theories about the document’s authenticity abounded, finally prompting now-President Obama to release his long-form birth certificate in April 2011.

Another pet cause for anti-Obama conspiracy theorists is the claim that he is a secret Muslim, a thread that runs adjacent to birtherism. It’s also a myth that Clinton and her campaign staff were responsible for spreading that rumor.

As Clinton was losing ground in Iowa in fall 2007, Politico published an email that had been forwarded by a volunteer county chair for the Clinton campaign, Judy Rose, that read, “Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim.”

“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 – through the President of the United States , one of their own!!!!” the email also said.

Politico reported that Rose forwarded the message to eight other Democrats, Clinton campaign staffer Ryan Callanan among them. He responded curtly that such messages are “racist and ignorant. I can’t believe that people believe this stuff.”

By December of that year, Rose had resigned over the controversy. Another volunteer in a different county also resigned for forwarding a similar message, according to Politifact.

Another nadir of the Democratic primary came when the right-wing link aggregator Drudge published a photo of Obama wearing a turban as part of the traditional dress of a Somali elder during a 2006 visit to Kenya. The Obama campaign responded by accusing an increasingly desperate Team Clinton of dirty tricks, with Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, calling the photo “the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party in this election.”

Clinton’s top staffer, Maggie Williams, initially said Obama’s campaign should be “ashamed” for being up in arms about the photo without denying that staffers had circulated the image. Clinton’s then-spokesman Howard Wolfson later denied campaign staffers were involved in releasing the photo, saying, “We were not aware of it, the campaign didn’t sanction it and don’t know anything about it.”

This post has been updated.

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