PolitiFact: Trump repeats false attack that Hillary Clinton was behind Obama birther movement

Posted at 1:16 PM, Sep 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-16 15:56:17-04

In acknowledging that President Barack Obama was born in the United States, "period," Donald Trump repeated a false attack Friday that it was Hillary Clinton who was behind the conspiracy theory.

"Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy," Trump told reporters at the tail-end of a press event in Washington. "I finished it."

That's False. There is no evidence that Clinton or her 2008 campaign floated the theory, nor is it accurate for Trump to say he finished the controversy. While some Clinton supporters circulated the allegations in 2008, they had no ties to either the candidate or her staff.

What follows is the basis of the allegation, and its severe shortcomings.

The 2007 Clinton memo

The Trump campaign says a 2007 strategy memo from former Clinton aide Mark Penn is evidence Clinton was behind the birther movement. The memo, written ahead of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, suggested highlighting Obama's "lack of American roots:"  

News reports about Obama's cosmopolitan, multicultural upbringing "exposes a very strong weakness for him — his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited," Penn wrote.

Penn said the Clinton campaign could create a contrast by talking about Clinton being "born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century."

"Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't," he continued. "Let's use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let's add flag symbols to backgrounds."    

While Penn suggests Clinton "own 'American' in our programs," the memo never suggests questioning Obama's citizenship or birthplace. In fact, Penn writes, "We are never going to say anything about his background."

Furthermore, as the Atlantic and Politico reported in 2008, neither Clinton nor her campaign acted on Penn's advice.

The chain email

The other piece of "evidence" linking Clinton to birtherism are emails circulated by supporters of Clinton during the last days of the 2008 Democratic primary after Clinton suspended her campaign.

According to a Telegraph article, Clinton supporters circulated the "birther" theory in an email as early as April 2008.

"Barack Obama's mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy," the email said, according to the Telegraph. "She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth."

The allegations gained momentum that month. Clinton conceded the race on June 7, and three days later a website called encouraged Clinton backers to support Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.

The website promoted the theory with an email that read, "Obama May Be Illegal to Be Elected President," as Daily Beast editor John Avlon has documented.

According to Avlon, Linda Starr, a Clinton volunteer in Texas, was key to spreading the rumor. She connected with with Philip Berger, an attorney and Clinton supporter, who sued to block Obama's nomination. The suit was thrown out.

In the case of the email, there is no evidence Clinton or campaign played any part. No connection between Starr, Berger and the Clinton campaign ever emerged as much of the story started after Clinton already suspended her campaign.

Clinton dismissed the allegation she played a part in the birther movement in a 2015 interview with CNN's Don Lemon.

"That is — no. That is so ludicrous, Don. You know, honestly, I just believe that, first of all, it's totally untrue, and secondly, you know, the president and I have never had any kind of confrontation like that," Clinton said. "You know, I have been blamed for nearly everything, that was a new one to me."

Our ruling

Trump said, "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy."

There is no evidence to support this. Clinton supporters circulated the rumor in the last days of the 2008 Democratic primary and after Clinton had concede to Obama. But the record does not show Clinton or her campaign ever promoting the birther theory, let alone starting it.

We rate Trump's claim False.