Politics & Policy

Sidney Blumenthal, Birtherism, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Sidney Blumenthal in June 2015 (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Sidney Blumenthal’s opposition research in 2008 may have had unintended consequences.

Historians will be writing for decades about how Donald Trump improbably became president. Here’s one angle I hope they don’t ignore. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 supporters set in motion Trump’s candidacy when they began spreading rumors that Barack Obama had been born in a foreign country. It wasn’t until 2011 that Donald Trump picked up that bizarre torch and ran with it, only to finally drop it in September when it was clearly a spent flame.

The same mainstream media that slammed Trump for his birther obsession has long failed to properly mention its origins in the “dark ops” wing of the 2008 Hillary campaign. As Britain’s Telegraph reported in 2011: In April 2008, “an anonymous email circulated by supporters of Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s main rival for the party’s nomination, thrust a new allegation into the national spotlight — that he had not been born in Hawaii.” The first lawsuit to make birther claims was filed by Phil Berg, a Democratic attorney and a Hillary Clinton supporter.

Hillary herself has dismissed claims that her campaign had anything to do with spreading the birther rumor. She told CNN that the suggestion was “ludicrous,” saying, “I have been blamed for nearly everything, that was a new one to me.” But the Clintons rarely leave fingerprints of their own involvement in skullduggery. Last September, former McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau chief James Asher revealed the role that Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal played in stirring up the birther scandal. “He strongly urged me to investigate the exact place of President Obama’s birth, which he suggested was in Kenya,” said Asher, who at the time was McClatchy’s investigative editor and in charge of Africa reporting. “We assigned a reporter to go to Kenya, and that reporter determined that the allegation was false.”  

Denials of the Clintons’ involvement in the original birther controversy come from the same aides who denied that their candidate had personally approved trolling against the Trump campaign even though an undercover video by James O’Keefe confirmed that. Other O’Keefe videos showed that operatives linked to Hillary’s campaign paid people to disrupt Trump rallies and plan voter-fraud schemes.

None of this excuses Trump’s decision in 2011 to stoke the birther controversy and demand a copy of Obama’s birth certificate. (“But I will tell you this. If he wasn’t born in this country, it’s one of the great scams of all time.”)

Trump’s attacks clearly irked Obama, and in April 2011, Obama released a copy of the long-form version of his Hawaii birth certificate. The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner was three days later, and Obama knew that Trump would be in attendance as a guest of the Washington Post. Obama made a point of strolling onto the stage to the strains of Rick Derringer’s “Real American” and later “revealing” his “long-form birth video,” which ended up being a clip from The Lion King. Obama then proceeded to fillet Trump like a master sushi chef:

I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier — no one is prouder — to put this birth certificate issue to rest, and that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter: Like, Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?

Obama also teased Trump about his “credentials and breadth of experience” by citing a tough decision that Trump had to make on a then-recent episode of The Celebrity Apprentice, in which Trump fired actor Gary Busy. As a coup de grâce, Obama unveiled a mock-up picture of what a Trump-occupied White House could look like — with a high-rise addition, a huge neon sign with Trump’s name on the façade, and gold columns on the portico.

During Obama’s riffs, cameras panned to Trump, who sat stiffly in his chair, often with a frozen smile on his face. In The Choice 2016, a PBS documentary that aired in September, Michael Antonio, who authored a 2015 biography of Trump, said that the public roasting of Trump by Obama had a big impact on the billionaire:

Donald dreads humiliation and he dreads shame. And this is why he often attempts to humiliate and shame other people. So in the case of the president ridiculing him, I think this was intolerable for Donald Trump.

Trump confidants are convinced that the episode spurred Trump — who had toyed with but rejected running for president during six previous election cycles — to finally run. Roger Stone, a key Trump political adviser for 30 years, spoke about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner roasting when he was interviewed for the PBS documentary: “I think that is the night that he resolves to run for president. I think that he is kind of motivated by it. ‘Maybe I’ll just run. Maybe I’ll show them all.’” Omarosa Manigault, a Trump friend and former cast member of his Apprentice show agreed, saying that Trump’s winning of the GOP nomination was “the ultimate revenge.” The PBS narrator noted: “It was a moment of vindication for a candidate who had climbed back from a bitter public humiliation.”

Trump himself denies that his humiliation at the 2011 dinner was a motivating factor in this decision to run.

Trump himself denies that his humiliation at the 2011 dinner was a motivating factor in this decision to run. This spring, he told the Washington Post: “It’s such a false narrative. I had a phenomenal time. I had a great evening.”

Of course, Trump has been known to tell some whoppers so his denial can charitably be put down as “unproven.”

In the last few days, many commentators have noted that Hillary Clinton has only herself to blame for her defeat — from her paranoia, to her rogue e-mail server, to her reputation as a congenital liar. But what if the injection of the birther issue into the 2008 campaign led to a sequence of events that resulted in her undoing? Perhaps Trump opportunistically seized on the issue, Obama delivered a stinging rebuke of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondent’s dinner, and Trump then decided to run. Perhaps Clinton World is the real origin of her failure to capture the office she has lusted for since the 1990s.