[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]
The so-called “birther” story—the claim that President Obama was born outside the U.S. and is not a “natural born Citizen,” thus ineligible to be president—was back in the news last week. Was it spread, as Donald Trump alleged, by the Clinton organization?
Among those allegedly spreading the birther story during the 2008 campaign: Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton’s top political advisor. According to James Asher, former Washington bureau chief of the McClatchy Company, one of the nation’s top news organizations, Blumenthal suggested to him that Obama was born in Kenya, and sought to persuade Asher to pursue the story—which Asher did, leading to a determination that the birther story was false.
The Washington Post, in a news story Friday, characterized as false Donald Trump’s charge that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” with the Post calling Trump’s claim “an assertion that has been repeatedly disproved by fact-checkers who have found no evidence that Clinton or her campaign questioned Obama’s birth certificate or his citizenship.” The rest of the media followed suit. The idea that the Clinton campaign was involved in the birther effort was a “false conspiracy,” reported the Associated Press. It was “a claim that does not stand up to scrutiny,” said Reuters.
In an effort to exonerate the Clinton organization from charges of ties to “birtherism,” some in the news media cling to the technicality that Blumenthal was supposedly not a part of the 2008 Clinton campaign. They claim that, while Blumenthal might have spread the rumor, Clinton’s campaign didn’t. For example, John Berman on CNN said that his organization “reached out to Clinton campaign staffers to say, to their knowledge, at that time, Sidney Blumenthal did not work for the campaign, but, yes, he is a friend of Hillary Clinton.”
Even McClatchy News, in reporting the allegations of one of its former editors, stated that “there is no evidence that Clinton herself or her campaign spread the story.” Again, the point is that the person spreading the story was just Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton friend, not someone from the campaign.
That characterization of Blumenthal as someone who was not a member of the Clinton campaign is contradicted by the words of Mark Penn, the Clinton 2008 campaign’s pollster as well as its chief strategist. In an interview in GQ magazine, published June 12, 2008, Penn defended himself from accusations that he had overcharged the campaign for his services. He pointed out that the money paid to his business organization (the firm Penn Schoen Berland) went mostly for expenses, such as printing and postage related to direct mail. Penn said that much of the money, payments that people assumed went to Penn himself, in fact went to “Sid Blumenthal.”
[Question:] You’ve been accused of making obscene amounts of money from this campaign. Can you clear that up for us?
[Penn:] Well, people think, you know… The reality is, the way that money’s been reported, all the printing and the postage—you know, 85 percent of the work has been for direct mail, of which almost all that is postage and printing and all that
[Question:] So when they come out with, like, ‘Mark Penn was paid $4 million,’ $3.4 million of that was postage?
[Penn:] The actual consulting fee is, you know, we received $27,000 a month, which is split between me and Sid Blumenthal [described by GQ as “a senior advisor”]. So it makes the net around half that.
[Question:] Wait, Sid makes as much as you?
[Penn:] You know, again, I don’t own these companies, so—
[Question:] No, really, Sid Blumenthal makes as much as you?
[Penn:] His fee is about the same.
So Sidney Blumenthal, according to Penn, was paid “about the same” as him, or, roughly half of the $27,000-a-month consulting fee paid by the Clinton campaign.
If you believe the news media, Blumenthal—Hillary Clinton’s closest political advisor, the apparent partner of her campaign’s chief strategist, and a man who was paid by the campaign at a rate corresponding to more than $160,000 a year—was not “the Clinton campaign.” If not, then who, besides Hillary Clinton herself, would be?
The question of Blumenthal’s involvement is critical because of the charges made by Asher, who was the investigative editor and in charge of Africa coverage when he was supposedly approached by Blumenthal. In an e-mail reported last week, Asher wrote:
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Sid Blumenthal visited the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Co. . . . During that meeting, Mr. Blumenthal and I met together in my office and he strongly urged me to investigate the exact place of President Obama’s birth, which he suggested was in Kenya. We assigned a reporter to go to Kenya, and that reporter determined that the allegation was false. At the time of Mr. Blumenthal’s conversation with me, there had been a few news articles published in various outlets reporting on rumors about Obama’s birthplace. While Mr. Blumenthal offered no concrete proof of Obama’s Kenyan birth, I felt that, as journalists, we had a responsibility to determine whether or not those rumors were true. They were not.
Asher has been making the claim of Blumenthal’s involvement at least since March. (A March 14 tweet from Asher called Blumenthal “Hillary’s confident and dirty trickster re: Obama’s Kenyan citizenship.”)
Blumenthal, in a curt e-mail to the Boston Globe, denied Asher’s claim: “It is false. Period.”
The reader should keep in mind that Blumenthal has remained a key advisor to Clinton. She sought to bring him with her to the State Department when she became Secretary of State, but was blocked by people close to the President, who remembered his role in smearing then-Senator Obama. Instead, Blumenthal was hired by the Clinton Foundation and by other nonprofits associated with the Clintons, and by the liberal publication The Daily Beast, but, despite his lack of official standing at the State Department, continued to communicate very frequently with Secretary Clinton. This gave him access to highly sensitive information. Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller reported in March that, “Of the dozens of intelligence memos that Sidney Blumenthal sent to Hillary Clinton while she served as secretary of state, 23 contained information classified as ‘Confidential’ or ‘Secret,’ a Daily Caller analysis shows. Sending nearly two dozen sensitive e-mails makes Blumenthal, a former journalist and aide in the Bill Clinton White House, one of Clinton’s most prolific sharers of classified information.” E-mails revealed that Blumenthal, in his communications with the Secretary, was a cheerleader for the illegal seven-month war on Libya, pushed largely by Clinton, which turned into catastrophe.
In 1998, during the Bill Clinton administration, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby called Blumenthal the “Clinton spinmeister . . . assistant to the president for propaganda and conspiracy theories” who “whispers sweet nothings in many reporters’ and columnists’ ears.” Blumenthal, Jacoby strongly suggested, might be the “somebody” who was “shopping a number of scurrilous stories” regarding the prosecutors then investigating the Clintons, including stories about sexual orientation and extramarital affairs. During that period, Carl Cannon of the Baltimore Sun reported that investigative journalists “keep hearing that they are on a Blumenthal ‘enemies’ list.”
James Warren of the Poynter news organization wrote in Vanity Fair in July that “those who know Blumenthal well” have “skepticism or distrust of his hyperkinetic and at times pandering ways . . . and his seeming ability to plant a seed of a negative story here, a glancing innuendo there.”
Others, referring to his skill at damaging or destroying people’s reputations, call him “Sid Vicious.”
At this point, the Blumenthal-as-birther story is a case of he said/he said. Whether you believe it depends on whether you believe Blumenthal or Asher. Critics of Asher note that, in his social media posts, he has been a harsh critic of the corruption associated with former Secretary of State Clinton. That makes him an outlier among journalists, most of whom, mindful of possible damage to their careers, generally avoid treating Clinton and her campaign harshly or skeptically.
Asher’s account should be examined critically, of course. As suggested by blogger “Atticus Goldfinch,” Asher should be asked to provide additional evidence supporting his accusation, such as confirmatory notes from the period and further details on any effort made by him or his reporters to check out the birther story.
Here’s where the matter stands: Blumenthal—thus, the Clinton campaign—was accused of spreading the birther story, and the accusation was made by a journalist with a reputation for honesty. That means that there is evidence, including Asher’s eyewitness account, of Clinton campaign involvement with the birther rumor. To say there is “no evidence” of a Clinton campaign connection is false.
Who started the birther story?
We’re discussing a story involving a Clinton, so it’s highly appropriate that the answer depends on the meaning of the word “started.”
Is the starter of a rumor the first person who speculates that something might be true, or the first person who shares the idea skeptically with others, or the first who shares it uncritically, or the first who fleshes it out with lots of juicy details to make it sound plausible, or the first who tries to plant the story in a respectable organ of the news media?
The birther rumor has been traced to a number of sources, from a 2006 Honolulu Advertiser story suggesting in passing that Barack Obama was born “outside the country’ (“in Indonesia,” that is), to a 2004 Kenyan Standard article celebrating his U.S. Senate victory (in which someone in Kenya, apparently out of misplaced pride, added “Kenyan-born” to an Associated Press story), to a 1991 listing, which went uncorrected for more than a decade, in which Obama’s own literary agent described him as “born in Kenya.”
One theory traces it to a legal hypothetical—a “what if” scenario—in a February 28, 2008 discussion of the presidential eligibility of John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone to U.S. parents. “Let’s change the hypothetical (just for grins and giggles),” a commenter suggested. “Barack Obama’s father was a citizen of Kenya. What would Senator Obama’s citizenship status (and Presidential eligibility) be if . . . He had been born in Kenya, but taken by his mother to the United States immediately after birth and then spent the rest of his life as he has subsequently lived it?”
Within a day or so, theorizes a Georgia attorney named Loren Collins, that hypothetical example spread through the rumor mill to the website/message board Free Republic. There, it appeared in this form:
I was told today that Obama swore in on a Koran for his Senate seat. I do not believe he did. Can someone clarify this for me? I am under the impression only a Congressman has so far sworn in on a Koran.
Also that Obama’s mother gave birth to him overseas and then immediately flew into Hawaii and registered his birth as having taken place in Hawaii.
Again, any clarifications on this? Defintely disqualifies him for Prez. There must be some trace of an airticket. While small babies are not charged air fare they do have a ticket issued for them.
Long time ago but there may be some residual information somewhere. Good ammo (if available and true) BEST USED AFTER he becomes PREZ (if that occurs) and it’s too late for Dems – except accept the VP.
Four days later, slightly elaborated upon, the born-in-Kenya story showed up on an obscure website focusing mainly on criticism of Islam. (It’s so obscure that the site has barely more than two pages of unduplicated links in Google. It appears not to have been updated in the past four years.) From there, or, perhaps, from the Free Republic post, or, perhaps, from another source that has not been identified, the tale bounced around until it ended up in an administrator’s comment on the (left-leaning) debunking website Snopes.
Politico on April 22, 2011, and the (U.K.) Telegraph five days later, pointed to an e-mail, circulating among Hillary supporters and dating to Spring 2008. This appears to be it (“appears” because the original, which is thought to have appeared on a Snopes message board that April 21, seems to have been removed from the “Wayback Machine” Web archive, and only a purported copy is available).
Today, we have a new matter before us. There is an article out today on the internet [sic] that says that Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy.
She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so she [sic] Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.
Obama is not eligible to be President of the United States of America. This may be proven in the next few days, but I am sure it will be proven before the General Election.
The DNC and the elite of the Democratic party should respect Hillary and not force her off the ballot. If they do, we may not even have a viable candidate.
I’m sure all this can be proven, by hospital documents and witnesses. It will take time, but Obama is not a legitimate U.S. citizen. He has citizenship established in Kenya, where he is recorded as an Arab-African.
The message appears to be written from the viewpoint of a Democrat. By that point in the campaign, the matter had come to the attention of Clinton supporters, many of whom were shocked and dismayed by Obama’s rise.
Maggie Haberman of the New York Times said on CNN last week that “There were some supporters of Hillary Clinton who started the birther movement. Hillary Clinton never talked about it.”
It’s usually difficult to trace the origins and spread of rumors. There’s a relatively new field of science, meme theory, that studies the spread of ideas, including rumors, as analogues to the spread of viruses or genes. But, in the blogosphere, finding an epidemic’s Patient Zero is often impossible. Critical links are missing and, most likely, will never be found. The evidence suggests that Internet rumor-mongers included both Hillary Clinton supporters and people on the political Right, each group hoping against hope that Barack Obama would be deemed ineligible for the presidency—two groups united in futility.
(photo source: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/birth-certificate-long-form.pdf)