Donald Trump and his allies had been privately celebrating Hillary Clinton’s stumbles — first on the campaign trail last weekend and then in the polls this week, which seemed to tighten dramatically after the former secretary of state was forced to disclose that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia and misled the media and the public about it.
Then, just as the conventional wisdom was beginning to harden that he could defeat Clinton, Trump capped what was shaping up as the best week of his campaign by descending back into a conspiracy theory surrounding the country of President Obama’s birth. The incident, which concluded at a press conference this morning where Trump declared that the president was born in the United States, “period,” raised questions about whether his newly installed campaign aides can keep the candidate from sinking his own bid for the White House between now and the November election.
It was the first major stumble for Trump since he replaced former campaign chairman Paul Manafort last month with a new team consisting of campaign CEO Steve Bannon, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and deputy campaign manager David Bossie. Since the transition, Trump has displayed more discipline on the campaign trail, delivering a series of policy addresses on immigration, veterans’ affairs, and taxes. He’s also gotten lucky: Having fanned the flames of what had once seemed like a fevered conspiracy about Clinton’s declining health, he was gifted the much-publicized pneumonia incident, which fed the public perception that he had been right all along. He may have been.
But it was another conspiracy theory — about the whereabouts of Obama’s birth — that knocked him off course. Trump, who has peddled a number of outlandish views during the course of the campaign, questioning Ted Cruz’s eligibility for the presidency and accusing George W. Bush of lying the country into the Iraq War, revived the controversy in an interview with the Washington Post on Wednesday night. Asked whether he was ready to concede that President Obama was born in the United States, he said, “I’ll answer that question at the right time. I just don’t want to answer it yet.” Afterward, he rebuffed campaign aides trying to stem the damage. Though his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, had said that Trump believes Obama was born in the U.S., Trump told the Post she was merely “speak[ing] what she thinks.”
Trump brought the so-called “birther” movement, whose members allege that Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore an illegitimate president, into the mainstream through a series of high-profile TV-news appearances in the spring of 2011. “I have people that have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told NBC in April of that year. “You are not allowed to be a president if you’re not born in this country. Right now I have real doubts.” The issue seemed to have been put to rest when the president released his original long-form birth certificate shortly thereafter. That is, until Trump revived it.
He sought to end the uproar elicited by his remarks in a Friday morning press conference at his new hotel in Washington, D.C., where, flanked by military heroes who took turns heaping praise on him, he offered a few terse sentences on the matter. Of Hillary Clinton, he said, “Her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I ended it. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” Though Clinton’s allies, including then-senior adviser Mark Penn, encouraged her to raise questions about Obama’s “lack of American roots” during the 2008 campaign, she never explicitly made an issue of his exotic background.
It was a bad end to what should have been a banner week for his campaign.
It was a bad end to what should have been a banner week for his campaign, which saw the release of several polls showing the race tightening and the Republican nominee within striking distance in a handful of swing states, including Michigan. “I don’t know, it looks like her numbers are in free fall,” says one top Republican strategist. “She’s just one more incident away — one trip, one stumble, one swaying-in-the-heat moment — from this being over.” But Trump’s decision to again stoke the birther controversy threatens to arrest whatever momentum he had — and to upend the view, just beginning to take hold, that the candidate’s newly installed campaign team had helped to rein him in.
Trump had been uncharacteristically restrained in his public remarks about Clinton’s health after the revelation of her illness. He told Fox News on Monday, “I just hope she gets well and gets back on the trail and we’ll be seeing her at the debate.” For months, Trump has floated the idea that Clinton lacks the energy and vigor to serve as president. Last month, he challenged her to released “detailed medical records.” When Clinton coughed during a speech last week and the incident garnered attention on Twitter, he tweeted, “Mainstream media never covered Hillary’s massive ‘hacking’ or coughing attack, yet it is #1 trending. What’s up?”
#related#Trump’s public posture in the wake of the Clinton campaign’s disclosure that the candidate was indeed sick belied a more celebratory atmosphere among his allies. Clinton’s illness and her campaign’s lack of transparency about it validated what had once merely seemed a Trumpian conspiracy theory: that the Democratic nominee simply lacked the stamina to keep up with him on the campaign trail. “I do think it’s more than pneumonia,” says Ed Rollins, the co-chairman of a super PAC backing Trump. “I’ve had strokes, I’ve had pneumonia, and I was sidelined in bed for three weeks. It was very serious. . . . Traditionally, after Labor Day, the race is over, but the race is far from over at this point.”
A window into Trump’s thinking came Wednesday evening at a rally in Flint, Mich., when he veered off script several times, asking the crowd at one point, “I don’t know folks, do you think Hillary could stand up here for an hour?”
As it turned out, it may have been the first indication that whatever success Trump’s new team had had in tamping down his more unpredictable tendencies would be short-lived. The old Trump has returned. Whether his advisers can force him back into hiding in the coming days and weeks will do much to determine the fate of his campaign.
— Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor.