Sidney Blumenthal, the Hillary Clinton 2008 Campaign and Birtherism

A Guide to Donald Trump’s Attempt at Damage Control

Last Friday, Donald Trump launched what Slate’s Josh Voorhees called “Birtherism 2.0”, a lie on top of an already discredited lie, by saying that the birther conspiracy theory began in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and that he had done a great service to the country by finishing birtherism in 2011 by forcing Barack Obama to produce his long form birth certificate. One of the pieces of evidence the right is seizing on to support this is a claim via Twitter from former McClatchy DC bureau chief James Asher that Sidney Blumenthal — a longtime aide and political operative close to both Clintons, and the same Sidney Blumenthal that Republicans were obsessed about in the Benghazi investigation — told him in 2008 that Obama was born in Kenya and that Asher had sent an investigator to check it out. Blumenthal has denied this. Politico’s Blake Hounshell did some digging and found that Blumenthal did encourage McClatchy to look into Obama’s ties in Kenya, which McClatchy’s Nairobi-based correspondent at the time, Shashank Bengali, did. Bengali interviewed Obama’s siblings and friends of his father, but ultimately didn’t even file a story about it. He does not recall if he was asked to look into the birther issue, but noted “No one in Kenya took that seriously.”

The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who was on Blumenthal’s private email list during the 2007–2008 primary season, wrote that in all the emails Blumenthal sent out, there was never any mention of “Kenya,” “citizenship,” “birth certificate,” or other related terms.

Is there evidence that Blumenthal sent McClatchy on a wild goose chase to Kenya to look for dirt on Obama? Yes. Was he pushing birtherism? The available evidence from Fallows’s and Hounshell’s reporting says no. Like most political spin and gossip, there is a partial element of truth to the Clinton started birtherism claim, which has become grotesquely distorted.

Beyond Sidney Blumenthal, Republicans are focusing on an anti-Obama email received by the campaign, as well as a memo written by then-strategist and pollster Mark Penn, while withholding key context.

In 2007, there was an anti-Obama email that was forwarded to a Clinton campaign staffer by a Clinton volunteer. The Clinton campaign staffer responded to — but did not forward or circulate — the email: “I’ve gotten this forward before. It’s racist and ignorant. I can’t believe that people believe this stuff.” (If you click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph, you can read the complete text of the original email at the heart of this controversy.)

Then-Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle tweeted, “@HillaryClinton or her ’08 campaign DID NOT start birther movement. Period. I was there,” and “I fired the rogue & I called @davidplouffe to apologize 4 said rogue.”

Judd Legum — who was Hillary Clinton’s research director in 2008 — also weighed in on this story. Keep in mind it was his job at the time to dig for dirt on the other candidates — including Obama. He tweeted: “I can say, definitively, that Hillary’s 08 research team never pushed the birther conspiracy,” “And I never heard anyone on the press team or any other part of the campaign push the birther conspiracy,” “I was aware of the rumors and chain emails and understood they were totally bogus,” “So when Trump says that the 08 Hillary campaign started the birther stuff, he’s lying. I know. I was there.”

The other piece of evidence that the Trump campaign is pushing is a 2007 strategy memo from Mark Penn, which was later leaked in its entirety to The Atlantic. Under a list of then-Senator Obama’s potential liabilities as a candidate, he wrote “Lack of American roots.” He further elaborates, “his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.”

What the Trump people conveniently ignore is this same section of the memo concludes, “We are never going to say anything about his background.” At no point in the memo does Penn mention Kenya or birth certificate, or raise the question of whether or not he is an American citizen. When Penn mentions Obama’s background he is referring to his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia.

The best account of the history of birtherism I’ve seen in the past few days is this blog post by James Fallows, which is well worth reading in its entirety.

Bottom line: did the Hillary Clinton 2008 campaign — through Sidney Blumenthal, Mark Penn, or the staffer who received an ugly email from a campaign volunteer — create or push the birther conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya and therefore not eligible to be President of the United States? No. Donald Trump didn’t create birtherism either, but in becoming the birther movement’s most high profile proponent and in continuing to push this discredited theory for five years after Obama released his long form birth certificate, he owns it. His failure to apologize or repent last Friday for pushing this conspiracy theory — seen by many as a racist attempt to delegitimize the first African American president — has effectively reinserted the issue into the presidential campaign and will almost certainly come up in at least one of the debates.