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Why Trump’s Latest Speech Will Do Nothing to End the Birther Controversy

September 16, 2016, 7:43 PM UTC


For years, Donald Trump made false claims about President Barack Obama’s citizenship. But on Friday, Trump tried to shut down criticism of his promotion of the so-called birther theory and grab some free publicity in the process. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States period,” he said at a press conference.

It’s unlikely that the Republican presidential nominee’s statement will put an end to the controversy surrounding his years of birtherism, claiming that Obama was not born in America but in Kenya.

Trump managed to trick cable new stations into airing first a series of testimonials by his supporters and plugs for his new hotel property, where the press conference was held. The reporters showed up in en masse because Trump had claimed he would issue a “major statement” Friday at his hotel, after Trump kept declining to say whether he’d renounce his birtherism. “I’ll answer that question at the right time,” Trump told The Washington Post on Thursday. “I just don’t want to answer it yet.”

But whatever benefit resulted from that ruse may not equal the cost. Trump also reminded potential voters of his embrace of a baseless theory that is widely seen as a thinly-veiled appeal to racists, and he tried to spread a new and false rumor — saying it was Hillary Clinton who started birtherism. (The latter is untrue.)

His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, immediately pounced.

Clinton’s campaign signaled it will invest campaign funds in ads hitting Trump on the issue. Democrats believe highlighting Trump’s birtherism will drive vital turnout among their base and hurt Trump with potential backers turned off by racial politics.

Following her speech last month detailing Trump’s appeals to racist “Alt-Right” backers, Clinton’s campaign released a video detailing Trump’s questioning of Obama’s citizenship and religion.

Trump delivered his statement Friday with customary bravado. But it followed several contradictory messages on where Trump stands on the issue. Last week, Trump’s campaign manager said that Trump believed Obama was born in the United States. Trump walked back her claims and declined to disavow his birtherism in Thursday’s interview with the Washington Post, only to reverse course again in his statement Friday.

Trump’s reversals suggest a bid to maintain appeal among backers drawn to him by birtherism and the attacks he leveled against Muslims and Mexicans en route to capturing the GOP nomination, while attempting to shift his campaign to woo a general election electorate many of whom consider such views disqualifying.

Polls have shown Clinton losing her lead and the race tightening. At the same time, Trump has been making a concerted effort to reach out to black voters, among whom he remains wild unpopular, and to allay concerns among all potential supporters that he is a racist.

The birther issue resurfaced again last week after the leak of emails in which former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, dismissed Trump’s appeals to black votes. “He takes us for idiots,” Powell said. “He can never overcome what he tried to do to Obama with his search for the birth certificate hoping to force Obama out of the Presidency.”

“The whole birther movement was racist,” Powell wrote in a later email.

Clinton’s campaign is sure to invest in assuring views like Powell’s are promoted.

In the wake of Trump’s speech, Clinton’s campaign noted that First Lady Michelle Obama will campaign for Clinton in Virginia, a key swing state Saturday. Trump said Friday he “finished” the birther issue and hoped that acknowledging President Obama is an American would allow him “get back” to his campaign message. It’s unlikely the First Lady and other Democrats will agree.