When Donald Trump decides that a political belief he held in the past is no longer convenient, he does not apologize or evolve — he simply tries to rewrite history and erase himself from the narrative. Trump once supported the Iraq War, but now he goes on TV to declare that he has been against it from the start. His language on the Muslim ban has changed so often that it can be best visualized as a dog chasing its tail for months until it just falls over due to exhaustion.
There is one issue, however, on which he has remained constant throughout his entire political career: Trump has always thought there was something fishy about Barack Obama’s birth certificate — and that obsession is somewhat responsible for the skyscraper collector’s entire political rise. Before 2011, no one took Trump’s political aspirations seriously, and after he became TV’s birther-in-chief, people still really didn’t. But they were paying attention to him.
His advisors thought the birther play was a smart move; one told the New York Times this summer, “The appeal of the birther issue was, ‘I’m going to take this guy on, and I’m going to beat him.’ It was a great niche and wedge issue.” In April 2011, Trump went on the Today Show and said, “I’m starting to think that he was not born here ... and if he wasn’t born in this country ... then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics and beyond.” (Trump would know, as he is perhaps our foremost expert in the modern political con.)
Twenty days after Trump’s Today Show appearance, Obama released his long-form birth certificate. It was not the first time he’d released a birth certificate; his campaign sent out a document good enough to get him a passport back in 2008. Regardless, Trump — who previously had counted his ability to build an ice rink as his greatest political achievement — took credit for going Nancy Drew on a mystery so complex it was already solved before he discovered it. Trump didn’t stop there, though, convinced he could find a piece of paper somewhere that would prove our nation’s first black president did not belong in the White House. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump told the AP in 2011. “I’m thinking about it, I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records. ... There are a lot of questions that are unanswered about our president.” This statement was uttered by a man who would later refuse to share his own tax returns — five years after he considered releasing his tax returns if a birth certificate appeared.
Trump did not stop talking about Obama’s birth certificate after its release.
He did not stop talking about the birth certificate after announcing his presidential run — and he also dabbled in some Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio birtherism. In January 2016, he announced that he still had his “own theory on Obama” and would probably write a book about it someday. This Thursday, he told the Washington Post that he was not ready to talk about being a birther. “I’ll answer that question at the right time," he said. “I just don’t want to answer it yet.”
Hours later, his campaign released a statement. It is 182 words long, and only one word is not a lie: His spokesperson describes the birther affair as “ugly,” which it is. However, the statement goes on to blame Hillary Clinton for being the original birther. In case it needs to be said, that is not true. This speculative fiction came after the Trump campaign tried to stuff Clinton’s child-care plan under an invisibility cloak and convince everyone it didn’t exist.
The statement also gives credit to Trump for his role in resolving this “ugly incident” — failing to mention that he never stopped talking about it. “Inarguably,” the statement brags, “Donald J. Trump is a closer.”
Let us be clear: Donald J. Trump did not end this drama. He took a conspiracy theory from a fringe candidate and made it a national issue by talking about it constantly on TV.
However, this statement was not from Trump himself. He still had not said Obama was born in the United States.
The end of the statement, which promises that Trump was totally focused on the issues now, is also a lie.
The next morning, Trump held a press conference at his new hotel in Washington, D.C. The first words he uttered, surrounded by Medal of Honor recipients, had nothing to do with politics. He had more important things to discuss: “Nice hotel. Under budget and ahead of schedule.” (That is false.) He did finally address birtherism in the final moments of the event. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” He did not take questions.
He did not apologize.
He did not explain why he couldn’t have said this years ago.
The national face of living with a truth allergy just started a new conspiracy theory — that Clinton is somehow responsible for the moment that started Trump’s own political career — and surrounded it with a commercial for his hotel. The only conspiracy theories that Trump doesn’t like are ones that are no longer useful for his purposes.
Unless Trump manages to find a time machine and erase everything he has ever said about the birth certificate — which would be unlikely, because he probably wouldn’t be a presidential nominee in that alternate timeline — this is one thing from his past that is a bit harder to disappear. The damage is done anyway. Most Trump supporters think Obama is unfit for the presidency, and many for the very reasons the GOP candidate laid out. A recent NBC poll found that 72 percent of Republican voters weren’t convinced that Obama was born in the U.S., while a September 2015 CNN poll showed that 43 percent of Republicans said he was a Muslim. Or, as Trump put it that same month, when asked if he would be OK with a Muslim president in the future: “I mean, some people have said it already happened, frankly. But of course you wouldn’t agree with that.”