So-called "'birthers" are OK with Donald Trump abandoning their cause, as long it helps him win the presidency — even if they still believe Obama was born in Kenya and don't necessarily agree with his claim that Hillary Clinton started their movement.
"President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period," Trump said Friday in Washington, D.C., reversing course on a five-year campaign to undercover proof that Obama was not really born in Hawaii. No evidence was revealed during the course of that time to back up his initial claim.
But in his 40-second statement, Trump replaced one conspiracy theory with another by claiming Clinton “started the birther controversy.” That is simply not true, according to multiple independent fact checkers, who call the claim “ridiculous.”
And now, even some leading birther activists tell NBC News that Clinton was not involved in their effort.
Trump didn’t start the birther movement either, but he was by far its highest-profile spokesperson.
In addition, almost all its prominent activists have flocked to Trump’s campaign — from the handful of members of Congress who supported “birther bills” to Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who launched an investigation that claimed to prove Obama’s birth certificate was a fraud, and Orly Taitz, the dentist and lawyer who the press once dubbed “the birther queen.”
Phil Berg, the Pennsylvania lawyer who brought the very first lawsuit challenging Obama’s eligibility to serve as president in August in 2008, was a lifelong Democrat who switched his party registration this year to vote for Trump in the primary.
"Trump brought the attention because Trump had a lot of attention back in 2011 and he brought this issue to the forefront," Berg said Friday.
The movement had murky origins in email chains and internet forums among conservatives as well as hardcore Clinton supporters who were upset that she lost the primary to Obama. While Clinton’s campaign had at times stoked the image Obama as different, they never claimed he was not American.
Berg told NBC News that while he supported Clinton in 2008, he had no contact with her campaign before or after he filed his lawsuit, and that it did not have anything to do with her campaign. “I heard nothing from the Clinton campaign,” Berg said.
"Who started the movement? I don’t know, I’m not sure," he added.
Berg is still pursuing the cause, and said he recently got a tip from a Kenyan man who was his passenger. (Berg drives part-time for the car service Lyft.) But he said he understands that Trump wants to "get back to the issues of the day and I don’t blame him."
Taitz, the dentist and lawyer who led many of her own birther lawsuits, urged her fellow believers to give Trump a pass for abandoning the cause.
“Trump is hands down the best candidate to turn the country around,” she wrote in a blog post Thursday. “My word to my supporters: let Trump win the election. There are only 8 weeks left. Now is not the time to talk about Obama, he is not running for president, Clinton is. Keep the eye on the prize!!!”
In an interview, Taitz said she does believe that Clinton started the birther movement. But when asked why, she pointed to Berg, who she said was chairman of the Clinton’s campaign in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, at the time.
In fact, Berg was chairman of the county Democratic Party — not Clinton’s campaign. When corrected and informed that Berg denied having any contact with Clinton’s campaign, Taitz changed the subject: “It’s not about Clinton and it’s not about Trump. It’s about Obama.”
Asked for more evidence that Clinton started the movement, Taitz replied, again referring to Berg, “This is the evidence that I’ve seen.”
Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, still believes Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery. But said he agrees with Trump’s decision to drop the issue for now. “Move on Donald and keep up the fight,” he said.
“Trump had the courage to come out and look at it and agree with Sheriff Arpaio’s investigation. Any second grader who saw it would have said the same thing, the evidence was so clear, ” Mack said.
Asked if he agreed with Trump that Clinton started the birther movement, Mack seemed puzzled, as if he had never thought about it. “I certainly wouldn’t put it past her,” he said. “But I have no evidence of that.”
Asked who he thought did start the movement, Mack replied, “I have no idea.”
It’s no surprise that Trump has attracted birthers, who say they mostly support him for his stance on immigration, trade, and other issues — rather than for his beliefs about Obama’s birthplace.
In fact, as Talking Points Memo reported, one of the men who introduced Trump at his anti-birther press conference Friday has flirted with the conspiracy theory. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney once wrote an affidavit stating there are "widespread and legitimate concerns that the President is constitutionally ineligible to hold office.”
Jerome Corsi, who advanced many theories about Obama’s origin at the website World Net Daily, which has paid for giant billboards asking for Obama’s birth certificate, declined to comment on Trump’s reversal. Asked if he agreed with Trump that Clinton started the birther movement, Corsi replied in an email, “I pass.”
Clinton’s campaign and her supporters are not ready to give Trump a pass on this issue, and Clinton herself called on Trump Friday to apologize to Barack Obama.
As recently as Wednesday evening, Trump had refused to say he believed Obama was born in the United States, even as his campaign officials claimed Trump did.
Why? “I think the bottom line is he doesn’t know. He’s not sure,” Roger Stone, the longtime Trump ally and informal adviser, told Boston Herald Radio Friday morning. “That’s not the same as ‘I’m certain the president was born either in Hawaii’ or ‘I’m certain that he was not.’”