The Obama Muslim Myth: The Clinton connection

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Iowa, a state where two supporters shared rumors about President Obama's religion in 2007. (AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Iowa, a state where two supporters shared rumors about President Obama's religion in 2007. (AP)

The myth that President Barack Obama is a Muslim refuses to die. Seven years after a full debunking in the 2008 election, nearly 3 out of 10 people still believe it, according to a recent CNN poll. Among Republicans, the number rises to over 4 out of 10. Donald Trump’s supporters seem particularly attached to the notion. Over 60 percent of them hold on to this falsehood, based on a survey by the Democratic-leaning group Public Policy Polling.

The idea is strong enough that even 15 percent of Democrats think it’s true. Oddly, some Democrats played a role in spreading it, and some have asserted that Hillary Clinton is among that group.

The topic got play two days in a row on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. On Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, host Joe Scarborough and a guest stated firmly that the rumor actually began with Clinton during the bruising race for the Democratic nomination.

"This started with Hillary Clinton, and it was spread by the Clinton team in 2008," Scarborough said.

The next day, the show dialed it down a bit.

They played a clip of Clinton rejecting the lie about Obama’s religion in a 2008 interview. Somewhat cautiously, Clinton explained why she didn’t think Obama was a Muslim.

"There is no basis for that," she said. "I take him on the basis of what he says."

Ron Fournier of National Journal said Clinton was dancing around a flap that had emerged shortly before that interview.

"There's stuff going on behind-the-scenes," Fournier said on MSNBC. "People working for the Clintons in part of the rings of the circle were spreading the rumors. That's where it started."

As Scarborough quickly noted, the email rumors date back to 2004. But to some extent, Fournier had a point. There’s a distant tie to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. It isn’t much of a connection, but it’s not totally absent either.

In the fall of 2007, it was clear that Clinton was losing ground in Iowa. The presumptive front runner was vulnerable and people in the campaign knew it. On Dec. 5, 2007, the online magazine Politico posted the text of an email that had been forwarded by Judy Rose, the volunteer chair of the Clinton campaign in Jones County Iowa on Nov. 21, 2007. The email was a quintessential smear that offered a distorted biography of Obama’s early years. Rose offered no commentary on it. She simply passed it along.

"Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim," the email said, and it ended with, "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!!!!"

Rose, sent this to eight of her fellow Democrats. One of them was Clinton campaign staffer Ryan Callanan who replied to the email on the same day in November.

"I’ve gotten this forward before," Callanan wrote. "It’s racist and ignorant. I can’t believe that people believe this stuff."

The public airing of the email brought a quick reaction from the Clinton campaign. On Dec. 6, 2007, the Associated Press reported that Rose had resigned as chair of her county committee.

"There is no place in our campaign, or any campaign, for this kind of politics," Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle said. "A volunteer county coordinator made the mistake of forwarding an outrageous and offensive chain e-mail. This was wholly unauthorized and we were totally unaware of it."

A few days later, a second volunteer in a different county stepped down when it was learned that she had forwarded a similar email in October.

These are the only two instances where Clinton campaign volunteers, much less staff, are known to have spread the false story about Obama’s religion. The number of recipients totalled 19 people.

Danielle Allen is director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Allen supported Obama, and in 2008, she tracked the origins of this claim to a perennial candidate and litigant in Illinois named Andy Martin in 2004.  Allen said bloggers took some ideas from Martin and embellished them over the years. In October 2007, Politico reported that versions of the slur were circulating in South Carolina, apparently with zero connection to the Clinton campaign.

Allen characterized the Clinton emails in Iowa as "low-level, opportunistic use, pretty quickly squelched, of something that emerged on the right."

The episode in Iowa fueled a testy exchange between Obama and Clinton on the tarmac of Reagan National Airport in December 2007. According to accounts from people who were there, Obama complained about the emails and Clinton boiled over in anger.

When asked about Clinton and the Obama-Muslim myth, Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for the Clinton’s current campaign, told us "Clinton never pushed that."

There are actually two intertwined falsehoods about Obama. One is that he is a Muslim and the other is that he was not born in the United States, also known as the birther movement. After Clinton conceded the primary to Obama, a relative handful of renegade Clinton backers jumped on the birther bandwagon to desperately snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Trump became the birther movement’s loudest megaphone when he toyed with a presidential bid in 2011.

Trump accused Clinton of starting the birther movement, a claim we rated False. Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is rock solid, and there is no sign that the Clinton campaign ever had anything to do with questioning that.

As for the myth that Obama is a Muslim, the record shows that a couple of Clinton campaign volunteers in Iowa passed along emails with that claim. Such emails had been circulating for several months. The volunteers did not share this rumor widely, and at least one paid Clinton staffer immediately renounced it. The Clinton campaign moved quickly to remove the volunteers. We could find no evidence of a deeper connection to Clinton or her campaign.