Donald Trump's abrupt acknowledgment of President Barack Obama’s U.S. birthplace has brought his lengthy history with conspiracy theories, rumors, and innuendo back into the spotlight.
On Friday, Trump finished a press event in Washington featuring veterans supporting his campaign with a short statement on his history of birtherism. He took no follow-up questions and left the stage.
There are many follow-up questions to be asked.
The first sentence of Trump’s brief statement was not true: “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy.” Neither Clinton nor her campaign ever brought up Obama’s birthplace, only a handful of supporters primarily online late in the race.
His second sentence also was not true: “I finished it, I finished it. You know what I mean.” Trump launched the conspiracy theory to new heights in 2011 and continued to do so long after Obama released his long form birth certificate that year.
And then finally: “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”
Whether Trump publicly renounces birtherism — and his trolling event on Friday was far from definitive — is largely beside the point. That’s because the broader issue isn’t just the question of how he feels about Obama’s birthplace, it’s the way inflammatory and false claims have defined his political career.
Trump has changed his position on a lot of things over the years. But if there’s one consistent thread, it has been his seeming obsession with conspiracy theories that touch on race, religion, or ethnicity.
In the case of Obama, Trump spent years spreading separate rumors about not only the first black president’s nationality, but also his religion, and whether his accomplishments were the result of affirmative action.
On the narrow issue of Obama’s birthplace, Trump’s theories were so elaborate that limiting it to the narrow question of whether the president was born in America barely scratches the surface.
Does he believe, for example, that a Hawaii state official who died in a plane crash in 2013 was killed to protect a secret plot, as he implied in a tweet at the time? Who was the “extremely credible source” he claimed in a 2012 tweet told him Obama’s birth certificate was forged? What did the investigators he claimed he sent to Hawaii to research the issue come back with?
Trump has also been obsessed with Obama’s college records, part of an apparent effort to prove he attended Ivy League schools and became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review on the basis of his race.
In 2012, he offered to donate $5 million to charity in exchange for Obama’s college and passport records. In 2014, he increased his offer to $50 million and said he believed Obama — even if he was born in America — claimed to be Kenyan to exploit the admissions system. “If you were born in Kenya, you got into colleges, and you got aid,” Trump told reporters. As late as last August 2015, he demanded Obama release his academic transcripts in an interview on “Meet The Press” and repeated a lie that the president had spent “$4 million in legal fees” concealing them.
Polls show a large number of Trump’s supporters — as many as two-thirds at one point — believe Obama is a Muslim (he's Christian) and Trump repeatedly fed these false rumors both during his peak "birther" phase and during the current presidential race.
When asked by NBC News’ Chuck Todd whether the country would accept a Muslim president, Trump replied last September, “some people have said it already happened, frankly.” He tweeted in February that Obama skipped Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral because it wasn’t “held in a Mosque.” After the Pulse nightclub shooting in June, he hinted Obama sympathized with radical Islamic terrorists. "He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands," Trump said.
Trump’s conspiracy tendency is not limited to issues surrounding Obama nor is it a relic from an earlier time in public life.
In fact, it’s been central to his presidential campaign.
Trump launched his White House run not just by talking up immigration and border security, but by accusing the Mexican government of a secret plot to send “rapists” and other criminals into America.
Trump offered no evidence for the claim, which experts across the ideological spectrum on immigration denounced as wholesale fiction, but he repeated it over and over again.
“The Mexican government forces many bad people into our country because they’re smart,” Trump told NBC News in July. “They’re smarter than our leaders.”
Trump has been particularly eager to spread false or unsourced rumors that portray ordinary American Muslims as secret extremists. He claimed he personally witnessed “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrate 9/11 on rooftops in New Jersey and refused to back down despite failing to provide any credible evidence for the claim.
He has repeatedly and falsely accused neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters of seeing pipe bombs on the floor of their apartment and not passing the info on to the police. “The Muslim community is not reporting what’s going on,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December. “They should be reporting that their next door neighbor is making pipe bombs.”
Those themes fit into a broader pattern of accusations of dual foreign loyalties Trump has cultivated. In addition to suggesting the president is sympathetic towards America’s enemies, and that Muslim Americans broadly sympathize with terrorism, he repeatedly accused a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit against him of bias due to his “Mexican heritage.” The judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana. He falsely suggested before and after winning the nomination that Senator Ted Cruz’s Cuban-born father Rafael Cruz was linked to the JFK assassination.
Trump’s rumor-mongering on Obama’s religion also set the stage for regular comments during his run questioning the faith of various political rivals. During the presidential campaign, he hinted at dark secrets about the faith of Dr. Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton.
"Are you sure he's a Mormon?" he asked a crowd in Salt Lake City about Romney.
“Not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK?" he said of Cruz.
"I'm Presbyterian. Boy, that's down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness," Trump said of Carson. "I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don't know about. I just don't know about."
Trump has surrounded himself with a cast of similarly-minded advisers. There's Roger Stone, the longtime confidant — now outside the campaign — who wrote a book accusing Lyndon Johnson of killing JFK. There's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who launched his own investigation into Obama's birth certificate. There's Frank Gaffney, the anti-sharia activist Trump credited with inspiring his Muslim ban who has spread wild conspiracy theories about radical Muslims infiltrating government and the conservative movement.
And, speaking at Trump's own event on Friday, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who submitted an affidavit in 2010 warning of "widespread and legitimate concerns that the President is constitutionally ineligible to hold office" in a court martial concerning a birther soldier who refused to deploy overseas because they considered Obama an illegitimate commander-in-chief.
Reached by NBC News, McInerney said he did not recall the affidavit and believed Obama was born in the United States. Asked how he came to that belief, he replied: "Because he said he was. I mean, he has never told a lie has he?"
In fairness to Trump, not all of his conspiracy theories touch on racial or religious themes. He also baselessly accused Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen last week of a hidden plot to help Obama politically by maintaining low interest rates, despite praising her for pursuing identical policies just months earlier.