One thing media and political observers have been calling for these past 48 hours has been for the mainstream media to stand up and forcefully refute and debunk the Trump campaign’s attempt to tie Hillary Clinton to the birther movement. (The GOP nominee and his defenders have simultaneously tried to diminish or completely eliminate Donald Trump’s role in pushing the conspiracy theory.) On Saturday night, CNN did just that.
In a detailed report by Gregory Krieg, each one of the talking points pushed by Team Trump attaching the Democratic candidate to birtherism were fact-checked and found to be entirely lacking. Krieg’s piece worked in conjunction with host Jake Tapper’s combative interview with Chris Christie on State of the Union, in which Tapper would not allow the New Jersey Governor to flat out lie about Trump’s role in accusing President Obama of being foreign-born and Hillary’s involvement in the smear campaign.
In terms of the argument that members of Clinton’s 2008 campaign began the rumors of Obama’s being born in Kenya, Krieg noted that none of the stories floated point to any actual involvement. Regarding strategist Mark Penn’s infamous 2007 memo where he suggests Hillary attack Obama’s lack of America values, Krieg pointed out that Clinton never followed Penn’s advice and, while it was unsavory and underhanded, Penn never questioned Obama’s birthplace.
The reporter highlighted the fact that two campaign volunteers were dismissed for passing along an email suggesting Obama was a Muslim intent on destroying the country. The Clinton campaign didn’t go down that road after the firings and, besides, the emails attacked Obama’s religion and beliefs more than his country of birth. And then there’s the latest flap regarding Clinton associate Sidney Blumenthal.
Late last week, former McClatchy editor James Asher accused Blumenthal of passing on a rumor to him in 2008 that Obama was born in Kenya. According to Asher, he sent a reporter to check out the story, finding nothing. However, Asher hasn’t provided any documentation or the name of the reporter he supposedly dispatched. He also has refused to comment to CNN or others. (We’ve tried reaching out to him with no luck.) Blumenthal denies telling Asher this, and as Krieg noted, he wasn’t part of Hillary’s campaign then or now.
As far as what Clinton said about Obama conspiracy theories during the ’08 campaign, Krieg featured her 60 Minutes interview where she said she doesn’t believe Obama is a Muslim. (The Muslim rumor was the big tall-tale of that time regarding Obama as opposed to him being Kenyan-born.) While she did toss in the words “as far as I know,” which infuriated Obama supporters back then, she didn’t continue stoking any rumors afterward.
Also, there is no evidence that Hillary or other members of the Clinton family or campaign have publicly said anything supportive about birtherism. Dating back as far as 2007, the Clintons have called the rumors “insidious,” “a myth,” and “ludicrous.”
Krieg had the following to say on why the Trump campaign has tried to blame Hillary for the birther movement while distancing Trump himself:
Trump’s decision to backtrack on the birther issue — and pin it on Clinton — is likely a campaign tactical move designed to improve his standing with moderate voters who might be susceptible to charges that Trump is racist.
According a CNN/ORC poll from September 2015, 80% of adults said they believed Obama was born in the US. Less than half of the dissenters chalked it up more to their suspicions than the presence of any legitimate evidence.
The same survey found that 61% of Trump’s own supporters did not subscribe to birther rumors, so the campaign likely considered that it had more to gain than to lose by dropping this as a wedge issue in his race against Clinton.
Just as we’ve seen Trump engage in his Black Panderfest 2016 in recent weeks, the whole reason for this move is to appeal to suburban white voters who feel uneasy supporting an avowed racist and bigot. The campaign likely knows they have no chance of getting any significant support from the black community. But if they can just convince enough moderate white folks that Trump really isn’t a white nationalist, then perhaps they have a chance in November.
Of course, Trump also has to bank on the fact that he won’t discourage infuriate a decent chunk of his Alt-Right base by disavowing the conspiracy theory. The hope there is that they’ll just think he’s doing what politicians do to win elections and that deep down in his heart, he truly believes Obama is an illegitimate usurper.
In the end, credit where credit is due. CNN, despite all of its obvious flaws, decided to take a stand and publish a report unequivocally refuting Trump. Kudos to them, and hopefully more mainstream outlets follow suit this week.