As of 10:17 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, Donald Trump is still a birther.
Birtherism—that is, questioning whether President Obama was born in the United States of America, a question reserved for the country’s first black president—laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s own campaign for the White House. It was birtherism that first endeared him to the many white Americans who now want to Make America Great Again. It was the enthusiasm his birtherism inspired that convinced him to run at all. Without birtherism, the Republican nominee would be someone else entirely.
And although the professional aides and strategists who now surround him would prefer that the media and the public—except for the other birthers—forget this fact, it is still very much a fact. No statement from an aide or strategist can change that.
Only Donald Trump can.
And—make no mistake—he hasn’t even tried.
At 10:17 p.m. Thursday, Trump’s “senior communications adviser,” Jason Miller, released a statement on behalf of the campaign.
“This issue,” he said, had first been “raised” by Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, in 2008, “to smear” Obama “in her very nasty, failed” campaign. “This type of vicious and conniving behavior is straight from the Clinton Playbook,” Miller said. “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.”
He added, “Inarguably, Donald J. Trump is a closer. Having successfully obtained President Obama’s birth certificate when others could not, Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States.”
Miller’s statement—which didn’t explain the years-long delay in Trump announcing that conclusion — followed an interview Trump gave to The Washington Post on the tarmac in Canton, Ohio on Wednesday, wherein he refused to say he thought Obama was a natural citizen, even though his campaign manager, the relatively diplomatic Kellyanne Conway, had recently claimed he did.
“It’s okay,” Trump said, “She’s allowed to speak what she thinks. I want to focus on jobs. I want to focus on other things.” He continued, “I don’t talk about it anymore. The reason I don’t is because then everyone is going to be talking about it as opposed to jobs, the military, the vets, security.”
The attempt to otherize Obama began in 2004, after he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston. “Obama is a Muslim who has concealed his religion” was the initial claim pushed out in a press release written by serial litigant and failed candidate Andy Martin—who once ran for Congress vowing to “Exterminate Jew Power in America." The claim was then aggregated by conservative media.
Over the years, through the game of telephone that is the democratized dissemination of information in the digital sphere, Martin’s wild charges led to other rumors.
By 2008, amid Obama’s ascendance in the Democratic primary, fringe Clinton supporters began passing around an anonymous email which questioned his citizenship. As Politico reported in 2011, one email chain read, “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.” Phillip Berg, a 9/11 truther and Clinton supporter who once served as deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania, filed a complaint in federal District court in August 2008 that said, “Obama carries multiple citizenships and is ineligible to run for President of the United States. United States Constitution, Article II, Section 1.”
When the campaign, in response to questions, released Obama’s birth certificate on its website in the summer of 2008, it only served to fan the flames, despite independent fact checkers and the director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, who was a supporter of John McCain, confirming its authenticity.
Neither Clinton herself or her campaign perpetuated the conspiracy, despite what the Trump campaign is now claiming.
With Clinton out of the picture, the rumors and accusations continued from Obama’s right wing detractors—although not from McCain—throughout the general election. According to polling, this lead a significant faction of Republican voters and Americans in general to believe that their eventual president was in the office improperly.
The idea was further legitimized during the 2010 midterm election by a handful of Republicans, like David Vitter, the Senator from Louisiana, who said he would “support conservative legal organizations and others” who would bring the issue to court, and Nathan Deal, the then-Congressman from Georgia, who pressed Obama to release a birth certificate declaring him a natural-born citizen. “I think he needs to convince those who still have doubts,” he said at the time.
But mainstream conservatives tended to stay away from it.
Which is where Trump came in.
In March of 2011, Trump appeared on The View, where he broached the subject. “Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate?” he asked, angering Whoopi Goldberg. He claimed that “nobody” from Obama’s “early years” has any recollection of him, and there must be “something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.”
By April, Trump had vowed to send private investigators to Hawaii to search for the truth about “one of the greatest cons in the history of politics and beyond,” as he put it. “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told CNN. “You are not allowed to be a president if you’re not born in this country. Right now, I have real doubts.”
As The New York Times noted, Trump’s polls in the Republican primary field in 2012 seemed to rise with his insistence that something wasn’t quite right with Obama’s story. He went from fifth place to “a virtual tie for first.”
By April 27, 2011, Obama released his original, long-form birth certificate. “We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” the President said at the White House. “I’ve been puzzled at the degree to which this just kept going.”
Trump held a press conference in New Hampshire to celebrate, boasting that he was “very proud” of himself. “I’ve accomplished something nobody else was able to accomplish,” Trump said. “I’d want to look at [the birth certificate], but I hope it’s true so that we can get onto much more important matters.”
Still, Trump wasn’t satisfied.
In May 2012, he Tweeted, “Let’s take a closer look at that birth certificate. @BarackObama was described in 2003 as being ‘born in Kenya.’” with a link to a conspiracy article. In August 2012, he Tweeted, “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” In December 2013, he wrote,” How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in a plane crash today. All others lived.” In November 2012, he quoted a Tweet from a supporter saying, “Obama also fabricated his own birth certificate after being pressured to produce one by @realDonaldTrump.”
Earlier this year, Trump told CNN he planned to write a book detailing his own theory on Obama's citizenship. "It'll do very successfully," he said.
As the Republican nominee likes to say, there is something going on here—his campaign team is working furiously to sell their product as presidential material and he has professional help mouthing words for him, but there’s been no pivot in Trump's soul.