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Trump Drops False ‘Birther’ Theory, but Floats a New One: Clinton Started It

Donald J. Trump publicly retreated from his “birther” campaign on Friday, tersely acknowledging that President Obama was born in the United States and saying that he wanted to move on from the conspiracy theory that he has been clinging to for years.

Mr. Trump made no apology for and took no questions about what had amounted to a five-year-long smear of the nation’s first black president. Instead, he claimed, falsely, that questions about Mr. Obama’s citizenship were initially stirred by the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, in her unsuccessful primary contest with Mr. Obama in 2008.

Still, Mr. Trump’s brief remarks, tacked onto the end of a campaign appearance with military veterans at his new hotel in downtown Washington, amounted to a sharp reversal from a position he has publicly maintained, over howls of outrage from all but the far-right extreme of the political spectrum, since 2011.

“President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Mr. Trump said. “Now, we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”

Mr. Trump’s refusal to disavow the birther issue helped drive his standing among black voters to historically low levels, with some public opinion polls showing him supported by zero percent of African-Americans.

His campaign aides are aware that the issue could also haunt Mr. Trump in his first debate with Mrs. Clinton, on Sept. 26, and they tried for several days to put it to rest. But Mr. Trump himself revived the issue late Thursday, declining in an interview with The Washington Post to acknowledge that Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii.

In his brief remarks, Mr. Trump leveled the accusation — which his supporters have been pressing for weeks — that Mrs. Clinton first raised doubts about Mr. Obama’s birthplace eight years ago.

“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Mr. Trump said. “I finished it.”

During the 2008 Democratic contest, a senior strategist for Mrs. Clinton at one point pondered, in an internal memo that was later leaked, the ways in which Mr. Obama’s personal background differed from many Americans. But contrary to Mr. Trump’s assertion, neither Mrs. Clinton nor her campaign ever publicly questioned Mr. Obama’s citizenship or birthplace, in Hawaii.

Indeed, the topic was such a fringe issue within the Republican Party that in 2011, conservatives, including Ann Coulter, now a vocal Trump supporter, called on Mr. Trump to stop pursuing the issue.

Mr. Trump’s aides began trying to argue that he had actually “ended” the birther issue in a statement late Thursday. Mr. Trump’s spokesman, Jason Miller, asserted — also falsely — that Mr. Trump had “obtained” Mr. Obama’s birth certificate, which the president released in 2011.

“Mr. Trump did a great service to the president and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised,” Mr. Miller’s statement said.

Mr. Trump’s remarks on Friday came after Mr. Obama, in a brief exchange with reporters at the White House, again expressed scorn for the entire subject. “I was pretty confident about where I was born,” he said. “I think most people were as well. My hope would be that the presidential election reflects more serious issues than that.”

The Trump campaign had given conflicting signals on the issue of Mr. Obama’s birthplace in recent weeks. Those connected with the campaign — Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, Mr. Trump’s running mate; Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager; and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Trump adviser — all recently acknowledged that Mr. Obama was born in the United States.

But Mr. Trump refused to say so himself.

“I’ll answer that question at the right time,” Mr. Trump said in the Washington Post interview. “I just don’t want to answer it yet.”

With polls showing Mr. Trump overtaking Mrs. Clinton in some battleground states and deadlocked with her nationally, the Clinton campaign made clear that it would not let Mr. Trump slide on the subject.

In a speech in Washington on Friday to the Black Women’s Agenda symposium workshop — before Mr. Trump made his statement — Mrs. Clinton said that Mr. Trump owed Mr. Obama and the country an apology and that it was too late for him to walk back what he has done.

“For five years he has led the birther movement to delegitimize our first black president,” Mrs. Clinton said. “His campaign was founded on this outrageous lie.”

She added, “There is no erasing it in history.”

After Mr. Trump’s remarks, Robby Mook, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, denounced him.

“Trump’s actions today were disgraceful,” Mr. Mook said. “After five years of pushing a racist conspiracy theory into the mainstream, it was appalling to watch Trump appoint himself the judge of whether the president of the United States is American. This sickening display shows more than ever why Donald Trump is totally unfit be president.”

The birther issue earned Mr. Trump news-media attention and vaulted him to the front of Republican primary polls in 2011 as he considered running for president. He claimed that he had hired investigators, and that they “cannot believe what they’re finding.”

But the notoriously frugal Mr. Trump never provided any evidence that he had hired any investigators, and he never released anything they had turned up.

In April 2011, frustrated by the degree to which Mr. Trump was hijacking attention away from budget discussions and questions about his citizenship were spreading, Mr. Obama released his long-form birth certificate.

“We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” Mr. Obama said that day. “We got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do.”

Mr. Trump, who was en route to New Hampshire for a political trip at the time, took a victory lap. “I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully, getting rid of this issue,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference.

But he still refused to accept that Mr. Obama’s birth certificate was authentic: “We have to look at it to see if it’s real,” he said.

On Friday, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, a frequent critic of Mr. Trump, said he was glad that Mr. Trump “now rejects the crazy idea President Obama wasn’t born in America.” But he warned that this would not be the end of the discussion.

“The problem he’ll have is that he was a leader of this movement,” Mr. Graham said. “I don’t think he did the country a service, himself a service or the party a service by pushing this so hard and so long.”

Mr. Graham predicted that Democrats would use the issue to improve turnout among black voters. “It has done damage,” he said.

Indeed, national Democrats seized on Mr. Trump’s remarks as a litmus test for Republican candidates.

“He continues to disqualify himself, and yet Republican Senate candidates continue to stand by his side,” said Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She said Republican candidates needed to say “if they think Donald Trump should apologize to the American people for the absurd lies he has spread about President Obama and why they continue to support a campaign that provides a safe harbor for this type of disgusting race baiting.

Mr. Trump took no questions after his remarks about President Obama. As reporters shouted questions at him, he smiled and left the room. He then invited still and video photographers to follow him on a tour of the hotel, but no reporters or producers.

After he left, the structure holding up the curtain that had provided a backdrop for his remarks collapsed, sending American flags toppling to the ground. No one was hurt.

 

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