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The long running conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in America came back to haunt Donald Trump in the first presidential debate at Hofstra University.
For about two months in 2011, Trump fueled a tentative presidential bid by raising doubts about Obama’s birthplace. The issue faded after Obama released a long-form version of his birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that Trump publicly put the matter to rest.
When debate moderator Lester Holt asked Trump what took him so long, Trump tried to divert blame for the birther movement to two Clinton insiders, Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager, and Sidney Blumenthal, a friend and occasional staffer.
"If you look at CNN this past week, Patti Solis Doyle was on Wolf Blitzer saying that this happened," Trump said. "Blumenthal sent McClatchy -- a highly respected reporter at McClatchy -- to Kenya to find out about it. They were pressing it very hard."
Were Solis Doyle and Blumenthal -- two top Clinton aides in 2008 -- pressing the birther movement very hard?
We’ll take each person in turn.
What Doyle said on CNN
Doyle was on CNN on Sept. 16, 2016, and she was talking about an episode in 2007 during the Democratic primary. Doyle described a volunteer coordinator in Iowa who forwarded an email that promoted "the conspiracy." Asked during the interview if she meant the birther rumor, Doyle said she did.
The Trump campaign pointed to this as an admission that at least someone in the campaign played a role. But Doyle later clarified she was referring to a volunteer who was fired for forwarding an email about Obama’s religion, not birthplace. Regardless of what Doyle said in her interview, that is what happened. (PolitiFact wrote about it here.)
A rumor about Obama’s religion has an important difference from a rumor about his birthplace. While the two falsehoods overlap, only one -- whether he was born in the United States, would affect his ability to hold office under the Constitution.
Blumenthal and McClatchy
Blumenthal became a central figure in the birther controversy just recently. James Asher, the former Washington bureau chief of the McClatchy News service, tweeted on Sept. 15, 2016, that Blumenthal suggested in 2008 he look into rumors that Obama was born in Kenya.
However, Blumenthal has told many news organizations that the editor’s claim is false, and that he never raised the issue of Obama’s birthplace.
When a McClatchy reporter tried to reconstruct what actually happened, he confirmed that Blumenthal contacted Asher, and that a McClatchy reporter in Kenya explored whether Obama was born there, along with running down several other rumors. But McClatchy found no proof that Blumenthal questioned Obama’s birthplace.
The article quoted an email Blumenthal sent to Asher in 2008. While Blumenthal discusses Obama’s family connections to Kenya, there’s no mention of where Obama was born.
"On Kenya, your person in the field might look into the impact there of Obama’s public comments about his father. I’m told by State Dept officials that Obama publicly derided his father on his visit there and that was regarded as embarrassing," Blumenthal wrote.
Asher gave a new statement to McClatchy that steps back a bit from the certainty he expressed in his original tweet.
"Blumenthal visited the Washington Bureau of McClatchy, where he and I met in my office," Asher said. "During that conversation and in subsequent communications, we discussed a number of matters related to Obama. He encouraged McClatchy to do stories related to Obama and his connections to Kenya."
Asher said he remembered Blumenthal mentioning Obama’s birthplace but acknowledged that he had nothing in writing.
Trump said that Clinton insiders pushed the rumor that Obama was not born in America. His first example, Doyle, actually was involved in firing a county level volunteer coordinator who spread the rumor that Obama was a Muslim. The president’s religion might overlap thematically, but it is distinct from rumors about his birthplace.
Trump’s focus on Blumenthal lacks solid evidence. Blumenthal denies the allegation and the man who made it says he has no written proof.
We rate this claim False.
PolitiFact, The Obama Muslim Myth: The Clinton connection, Sept. 25, 2015
PolitiFact, Hillary Clinton and the birther movement: Still nothing there, Sept. 20, 2016
Politico, Clinton staffer on anti-Obama email chain, Dec. 5, 2007
Associated Press,Clinton volunteer coordinator resigns over e-mail claiming Obama is Muslim, Dec. 6, 2007
The Stranger, Clinton Backer Pushed False Obama-is-Muslim Story, Dec. 5, 2007
Des Moines Register, Clinton chairwoman dismissed over e-mail, Dec. 6, 2007
Associated Press, Clinton Campaign Seeks Resignation Of 2nd Volunteer In Obama Flap, Dec. 10, 2007
McClatchy DC, It’s one person’s word against another on the birther rumor, Sept. 19, 2016
UPI, Trump doubts Obama born in Hawaii, March 17, 2011, via Nexis
ABC, The View, March 24, 2011, via Nexis
Factcheck.org, Donald, You’re Fired!, April 9, 2011
CNN, Birthplace Facts, Not Birther Fiction; Trump Doubles Down on 'Birtherism', April 25, 2016
AP, Supporters of the Donald dumping Trump after 'birther' fiasco, polls suggest, May 12, 2011, via Nexis
McClatchy, 2 Clinton supporters in ’08 reportedly shared Obama ‘birther’ story, Sept. 16, 2016
Email interview, Steven Cheung, spokesman, Trump for President, Sept. 26, 2016
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