Once a Birther, Always a Birther

Once a Birther, Always a Birther
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A proud birther doesn’t walk it back, no matter what his smart campaign managers tell him to do, Donald Trump wants his voters to know.

Heading into the first presidential debate Monday, with a faux reversal of his birther stance last week having helped stabilize Hillary Clinton’s cratering poll numbers -- if not providing her a birther-boomerang boomlet -- Trump telegraphed to his birther buddies that he’s still on board.

Dodging the question of what led him to announce last week that President Obama was indeed born in the United States, Trump told an Ohio radio station on Wednesday: “Well, I just wanted to get on with you, you know, we want to get on with the campaign. And a lot of people were asking me questions. And you know, we want to talk about jobs, we want to talk about the military. We want to talk about ISIS, and how to get rid of ISIS.”

For more than a month, Donald Trump has largely confined his utterances to those written by others, which he reads off teleprompters or note cards -- and it has worked magically to reverse his poor standing in the polls, particularly among Republicans who had resisted him. But with these words to WSYX, Trump let everyone know his statement last week was just another political stunt and doesn't represent what he thinks or believes. With polls showing more than 40 percent of Republicans, and more than 60 percent of Trump supporters, still believing Obama was born in Kenya, it’s clear Trump fears letting these guys down. After all, it's a tight race, he doesn’t want them to worry he’s swallowed some ruinous establishment elixir, conceded a mistake or begun thinking that the nation’s first African-American president is indeed a legitimate commander-in-chief.

One birther (an RCP reader) made clear his reason for absolving Trump of the reversal with the email subject line “Trump can be forgiven for misinterpreting Obama’s birth certificate forgery.” In explaining that the billionaire birther could have been swindled by the bewildering paperwork, he cited wiggle room in the president’s statement that he was “pretty confident” about where he was born and wrote, “Obama’s decision to prefer one cacophony of hearsay over the other is fair enough, but that’s not something as innocent Birther will ever be allowed.” Note the capital B.

The decision by the shrewder campaign minds surrounding Trump to dump the birther movement on Hillary Clinton was cute but laughable even to the birthers themselves. To be sure, there is evidence some Clinton allies wanted to use this same question against then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary race, but they didn’t pursue it. Trump, on the other hand, has owned this issue with great pride, telling ABC News’ Jonathan Karl in 2013, “I think it made me very popular, if you want to know the truth.” Sam Nunberg, a longtime Trump political aide who was fired at the start of the presidential campaign but worked to help Trump find an opening with Republican voters, has acknowledged its intention. “The appeal of the birther issue was, ‘I’m going to take this guy on and I'm going to beat him,’” Nunberg said, adding, “It was a great niche and wedge issue.”

Long after the president released his birth certificate, Trump was trying to keep the issue alive. He questioned the authenticity of the document repeatedly, even as recently as this year. When asked in recent weeks about it he would only say he doesn’t “bother to talk about it anymore.” Then came his announcement that Obama was truly born here, which lacked any explanation of why Trump was actually lying about it -- in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, earlier this year, or now.

Trump’s reassurance to birthers this week bookends a campaign reset with African-American voters, which has shown him reaching out to black audiences in an attempt, at the very least, to reassure college-educated Republicans opposing him in large numbers that he’s not racist. It was well designed but its execution has involved: insulting a pastor who stopped him from criticizing Clinton at his appearance in Flint, Mich. (he later said his host appeared to be a “nervous mess”); an appearance with convicted killer Don King, at which Trump laughed when King used the N-word; and now a call for the return of a stop-and-frisk policy that many African-Americans -- and a federal judge -- have concluded led to racial profiling.

The latest polls show Trump’s support among blacks remains in the single digits. But his efforts to shore up the birther bloc could pay dividends with some voters, thereby keeping him "very popular, if you want to know the truth."

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.

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