WASHINGTON — Donald Trump finally acknowledged Friday that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States,” reversing himself on the issue that propelled him into national politics five years ago.
Trump sought to end his longstanding attempt to delegitimize the nation’s first African-American president with just a few sentences tacked on at the end of an event to unveil his new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
But the issue isn’t likely to die down any time soon. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on Trump earlier Friday to apologize.
“For five years he has led the birther movement to delegitimize our first black president,” Clinton said at an event in Washington. “His campaign was founded on this outrageous lie.”
Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961.
The President dismissed Trump’s criticism Friday, joking with reporters at the White House and saying, “I was pretty confident about where I was born.”
Trump’s statement appeared steeped in political motivations, just over 50 days before the presidential election and with Trump moving into a margin of error race with the Democratic nominee in national polls and in some swing states.
Trump clearly was hoping to take the issue of Obama’s birthplace and legitimacy off the table by the time of the crucial debate with Clinton on September 26, though the campaign statement seems certain to dominate the next few days.
Trump has made strenuous attempts to improve his dismal standing among minority voters and moderate Republicans in recent weeks, many of which see birtherism as racially motivated and an insult to Obama.
In a wider sense, his misinformation campaign about Obama’s birthplace also amounted to an attempt to delegitimize an elected American President. In a stunning final twist to a bizarre and unprecedented saga, Trump now stands a reasonable change of succeeding Obama in office. The birtherism episode is one reason why there is such deep antipathy towards the Republican nominee in the President’s inner circle.
The Clinton campaign immediately seized on the fact that Trump didn’t issue the statement himself.
“Trump needs to say it himself. On camera. And admit he was wrong for trying to delegitimize the country’s first African American President,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon wrote on Twitter.
The late-night move also appeared to be an attempt to damp down controversy over remarks by Trump in an interview with The Washington Post published earlier Thursday in which he indicated he was not yet ready to admit that Obama was indeed born in the United States.
“I’ll answer that question at the right time. I just don’t want to answer it yet,” Trump told The Post.
Trump has declined other opportunities in the past two weeks to refute his original birtherism.
When local Philadelphia TV station WPVI asked Trump on September 2 about his past statements about Obama not being born in the US, Trump replied: “I don’t talk about it anymore. I told you, I don’t talk about it anymore.”
He repeated the same line when asked about it during a gaggle with reporters aboard his plane last week.
And in an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last week, Trump again said, “I don’t bother talking about it.”
Trump’s extraordinary attempt to prove Obama was not a natural born US citizen and was therefore not qualified to be President started on the conservative fringe but incredibly gathered pace and became a major issue.
The White House initially tried to ignore the birtherism movement as the work of conspiracy theorists but Trump’s huge media profile propelled the issue through conservative media and it eventually gathered traction.
The saga only ended in a surreal and extraordinary moment in American politics when the sitting President went to the White House briefing room in April 2011 and produced his long-form birth certificate.
Trump campaign blames Clinton
In his statement, Miller said, “Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised.”
He was referring to a controversy from the 2008 Democratic primary fight between Obama and Clinton. In a March 2008 interview with “60 Minutes,” Clinton said she took then-Sen. Obama’s word that he was not a Muslim, but when pressed if she believed he was, she replied, “No. No, there is nothing to base that on — as far as I know.”
Clinton, however, was not questioning Obama’s birthplace.
Clinton slammed Trump’s comments to the Post while speaking at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute event in Washington Thursday, saying he needs to stop his “ugliness” and “bigotry.”
“He was asked one more time: Where was President Obama born? And he still wouldn’t say Hawaii. He still wouldn’t say America. This man wants to be our next president? When will he stop this ugliness, this bigotry,” she said. “This is the best he can do. This is who he is. And so we need to decide who we are.”
Clinton’s campaign later tweeted, “President Obama’s successor cannot and will not be the man who led the racist birther movement. Period.”
The ‘birther’ controversy
Regardless of the controversy’s origins, Trump has used it to launch his political career. In 2011, he emerged as one of the fringe movement’s leaders, repeatedly seeking to cast doubt on Obama’s citizenship and legitimacy in office.
“I have people that have been studying (Obama’s birth certificate) and they cannot believe what they’re finding … I would like to have him show his birth certificate, and can I be honest with you, I hope he can,” Trump said on NBC’s “Today” show. “Because if he can’t, if he can’t, if he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility … then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.”
He continued to make media appearances and call Obama’s birthplace into question on Twitter, eventually pushing Obama to release his long-form birth certificate — which proves he was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961, and was certified by Hawaii’s registrar — at a White House news conference.
At his news conference, Obama said that it was time to put to rest an issue that had dogged his White House since he took office in 2009.
“We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers,” Obama said at the time, in a clear reference to Trump.
But the real-estate billionaire, in a response that seemed outlandish at the time, but in retrospect looks like a template for the fact-challenged approach he adopted in his presidential campaign, claimed credit for getting Obama to produce evidence of his birthplace.
“Today I’m very proud of myself because I’ve accomplished something that nobody else was able to accomplish,” Trump said in New Hampshire, after Obama’s news conference.
In subsequent years, Obama jabbed fun at the birtherism controversy and used it to ridicule Trump, most memorably in a savage takedown of Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2011.
“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald,” Obama said.
“And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”