It's early, but Donald Trump is emerging as a significant player in the Republican race for president. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that among people planning to vote in the Republican primary, Trump placed second, tied with Mike Huckabee and behind Mitt Romney.
On MSNBC's Morning Joe on April 7, 2011, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell warned, however, that Trump's economic commentary is being "trivialized" by his association with the so-called birthers, people who doubt that President Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen of the United States, and is therefore ineligible to serve as president, because he has not provided a copy of his original birth certificate.
"Get off the birther stuff," Rendell said.
Trump, who is considering a run for president, said in a telephone interview on the program that he would not back off the issue, and that over the last few weeks he has only become more skeptical that Obama was born in the U.S. (His campaign released a Certification of Live Birth, which Hawaii officials say is an official birth certificate and sufficient to prove he was born in Honolulu. Trump and others have said that is not sufficient and that they still have doubts. We've gone over this ground repeatedly at PolitiFact.)
Trump also defended his position, saying, "His grandmother in Kenya said, 'Oh no, he was born in Kenya and I was there and I witnessed the birth.' Now, she's on tape and I think that tape's going to be produced fairly soon ...The grandmother in Kenya is on record saying he was born in Kenya."
Trump made an identical claim in a Today Show interview the same morning: "His grandmother in Kenya said he was born in Kenya and she was there and witnessed the birth, okay?"
This is actually an old claim that has been bouncing around the Internet for years. But keeping up with the latest birther claims is often like playing Whac-A-Mole, and we never got around to this one. So here we go.
The claim is based on an Oct. 16, 2008, telephone call between Bishop Ron McRae of the Anabaptist Churches of North America and Sarah Obama of Kenya, Barack Obama's elderly step-grandmother. The interview is complicated by the addition of at least one translator, because Sarah Obama, then 86, spoke Swahili.
The edited portion that often makes the rounds on the Internet includes this part of the interview:
McRae: "Could I ask her about his actual birthplace? I would like to see his birthplace when I come to visit Kenya in December. Was she present when he was born in Kenya?"
"She says yes she was. She was present when Obama was born," said the translator.
Smoking gun? Only if you stop the tape there and don't listen to the rest of the interview.
McRae immediately followed up by saying, "Okay, when I come in December, I would like to go by the place, the hospital where he was born. Could you tell me where he was born? Was he born in Mombasa?"
The translator can be heard translating, and then, he said, "No. Obama was not born in Mombasa. He was born in America."
Said McRae: "Whereabouts was he born? I thought he was born in Kenya."
The response came back, "He was born in America, not in Mombasa."
"Do you know where he was born?" McRae continued. "I thought he was born in Kenya. I was gonna go by and see where he was born."
"Hawaii. She says he was born in Hawaii," the translator said. "In the state of Hawaii, where his father, his father was also learning there. The state of Hawaii."
"I thought she said she was present," McRae said. "Was she able to see him being born in Hawaii?''
"No, no," the translator said. "...She was not ... she was here in Kenya. Obama was born in America ... Because the grandmother was back in Kenya and Obama was born in America, where he is from, where his father was learning, learning in America, the United States."
Listen to the full conversation yourself. The parts in question begin about the 4:20 mark.
McRae -- who we should emphasize was not the translator -- has kept the theory alive. In a Dec. 5, 2008 article, Salon ran an affidavit from McRae in which he maintains Sarah Obama confirmed she witnessed Obama's birth in Kenya:
"Though some few younger relatives, including Mr. Ogombe (one of the translators), have obviously been versed to counter such facts with the common purported information from the American news media that Obama was born in Hawaii, Ms. Sarah Hussein Obama was very adamant that her grandson, Senator Barack Hussein Obama, was born in Kenya, and that she was present and witnessed his birth in Kenya, not the United States. When Mr. Ogombe attempted to counter Sarah Obama's clear responses to the question, verifying the birth of Senator Obama in Kenya, I asked Mr. Ogombe, how she could be present at Barack Obama's birth if the Senator was born in Hawaii, but Ogombe would not answer the question, instead he repeatedly tried to insert that, "No, No, No. He was born in the United States!"
That's not what we heard on the tape. What we heard was a very rough translation in which an elderly woman agreed to the leading question that Obama was born in Kenya and that she was present. But it was immediately and clearly corrected -- repeatedly.
When we contacted Trump’s organization, Michael Cohen, his political aide, referred us to Jerome R. Corsi, author of The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality, which makes a case against Obama, calling him a political extremist who associates with radicals and has disturbing connections to Islam. (PolitiFact found the book was riddled with errors). In a brief telephone interview with PolitiFact, Corsi said he has spoken to Trump and that the statement about Obama's grandmother was, in fact, based on her taped conversation with McRae. Corsi pointed us toward an article he wrote for the conservative WorldNetDaily, in which he says that he spoke to two unnamed Kenyans familiar with Sarah Obama's dialect, and that they claimed she was clear in saying that she witnessed Obama's birth in Kenya. Futhermore, Corsi said they told him it appeared her later efforts to recant appeared to be heavily coached by those around her. Corsi has a book questioning Obama's birthplace coming out next month.
We note that in a Chicago Tribune story in March 2007, national correspondent Tim Jones wrote that in an interview with Sarah Obama, she said she received the news of Obama's birth via a letter to her in Kenya and that she was "was so happy to have a grandchild in the U.S."
Trump is serving up re-heated leftovers that have long ago been debunked. Anyone who listens to the tape of the phone conversation with Sarah Obama can hear how tightly you need to edit this interview to present it as evidence of a presidential cover-up. We rule Trump's claim that Obama's grandmother in Kenya said he was born in Kenya False.
Addendum: While researching this story, we sent an e-mail seeking comment from Bishop Ron McRae, who conducted the trans-Atlantic interview with Sarah Obama. We received this letter from McRae after our story published.