[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?