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Tracking The Rebirth Of The 'Birther' Conspiracy

Donald Trump speaks to the media on April 27, 2011, in Portsmouth, N.H., after President Obama released his original birth certificate earlier that morning.
Matthew Cavanaugh
Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks to the media on April 27, 2011, in Portsmouth, N.H., after President Obama released his original birth certificate earlier that morning.

This week on the campaign trail, Donald Trump and his surrogates are being haunted by the ghost of comments past.

Specifically, allegations the Republican presidential nominee made five years ago that President Obama lied about his birthplace to make him eligible for the presidency. (Obama was born in Hawaii.)

It's a theory that those close to Trump — who was one of the most well-known "birthers" — have tried to distance from the candidate.

On Friday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told CNN's Chris Cuomo that the GOP nominee no longer believes what he once did.

"He believes President Obama was born here," Conway said of Trump. "He was born in Hawaii."

But Trump himself hasn't actually confirmed that.

When pressed on why Trump wasn't addressing his past comments outright, Conway said, "You have to ask him. But I find the entire topic really amazing. I guess it's because the new CNN polls shows us beating her by 3 points."

Conway redirected the conversation.

"There's no question to me he was born in the United States," she added, "but he's not been a particularly effective president, and that's what this campaign is about."

Conway found herself fielding questions on the theory after reporters asked Trump to clarify his stance on Labor Day, but he remained tight-lipped.

"I don't talk about it because if I talk about that, your whole thing will be about that," he said. "So I don't talk about it."

That may have prompted former presidential candidate and Trump surrogate Ben Carson to tell CNN's Jake Tapper on Tuesday that Trump could improve his standing with African-Americans if he apologized for suggesting that Obama was not born in the country.

"I think that would be a good idea, absolutely. I suggest that on all sides. Let's get all of the hate and rancor out of the way so that we can actually discuss the issues," Carson said in the interview.

That night, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly asked Trump if his birther position has hurt him with African-Americans. Trump didn't take the opportunity to set the record straight.

"I don't know. I have no idea. I don't even talk about it anymore, Bill, because, you know, I just don't bother talking about it," Trump responded.

He added that O'Reilly was the "first one that's brought that up in a while," despite responding to similar questions the day before.

Former New York City Mayor and Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani attempted to step in for the Republican nominee on Thursday, telling MSNBC's Chris Matthews that Trump believes Obama was born in the U.S.

"I believe it. He believes it. We all believe it, but it took a long time to get it out," Giuliani said, adding that Trump told him that "he is proud of the fact that he finally got Obama to produce his birth certificate."

Giuliani was unable to pinpoint when Trump said definitely and publicly that the president is not foreign-born.

For his part, GOP running mate Mike Pence appeared to break from Trump this week, saying definitively that he does not believe the conspiracy theory.

"I believe Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. I accept his birthplace," Mike pence told reporters this week.

Trump may be quiet on the issue right now, but it has been a recurring talking point of his for over five years.

Obama first fielded inquiries about his birthplace in 2008, and his campaign released a copy of Hawaii's standard birth certificate then. But in the spring of 2011, Trump joined the conversation, appearing on several TV shows. He told NBC's Today that he had "real doubts" that Obama was born in the United States and had even sent a team of investigators to Hawaii to verify.

That challenge eventually led Obama to release a long-form birth certificate, which did indeed confirm that he was born in Hawaii.

"The president believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn't good for the country," former White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement at the time. "It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country."

Trump, though, wasn't satisfied.

A year later, Trump tweeted that a "credible source" told him the certificate was a fraud.

In 2013, two years after Obama released his birth certificate, Trump still remained unconvinced, telling ABC's Jonathan Karl that the allegations "resonated with a lot of people."

"Was it a birth certificate? You tell me. Some people say that was not his birth certificate. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't," Trump said. "I'm saying I don't know. Nobody knows. And you don't know either, Jonathan. You're a smart guy. You don't know either."

Later that year, he tweeted suspicions after the death of Hawaii State Health Department Director Loretta Fuddy.

In comparison with a few years ago, Trump has been relatively quiet on the birther front during his campaign, though perhaps because he has been stoking other fires: The Republican nominee did insinuate last month that Obama is the "founder of ISIS."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.