Trig Trutherism: The definitive debunker

Salon investigates the conspiracy theory: Is Sarah Palin really the mother of Trig Palin?

Published April 22, 2011 11:01AM (EDT)

Trig Trutherism, the surprisingly resilient conspiracy theory that Sarah Palin is not actually the mother of 3-year-old Trig Palin, is experiencing a boomlet thanks to a new academic paper that endorses the concept. Long pursued by the blogger Andrew Sullivan and a significant segment of the Palin-hating left, Trig Trutherism holds that Trig's real mother is either Bristol Palin or some third party, and that Sarah Palin herself faked the pregnancy to avoid embarrassment for her daughter or for political gain or some combination of reasons.

In light of the recent attention this subject has received and the considerable passion it has stirred, Salon embarked last week on an investigation of the circumstances surrounding Trig's birth. The exhaustive review of available evidence that we conducted, along with new interviews with multiple eyewitnesses who interacted with a pregnant Sarah Palin up-close in early 2008 -- most of whom had never spoken publicly about the matter before -- has produced one clear conclusion: Sarah Palin is, indeed, Trig's mother and there is no reason to suspect any kind of a coverup.

We've learned, for instance, that an Associated Press reporter in Alaska who was covering Palin during her pregnancy in early 2008 (before she became a national figure) thoroughly investigated rumors that the pregnancy was a hoax. The reporter directly questioned Palin about the matter in a private meeting in her Juneau office before she gave birth. Gov. Palin responded by voluntarily lifting her outer layer of clothing, offering a clear look at her round belly. The reporter quickly concluded that there was no truth to the rumors and never wrote about them.

So why dive into this old conspiracy theory now?

After all, there's a strong argument to be made that politicians' private lives should not be subject to investigation unless there is suspicion of hypocrisy (e.g., Larry Craig) or some public policy implication (e.g., Mark Sanford). As Atrios put it, "if Trig was sired by Lucifer and birthed from a hippopotamus it's really none of our business." Sullivan has claimed that the birth of Trig, a baby with Down syndrome, played a key role in Palin being chosen for the GOP's 2008 ticket, because it solidified her pro-life credentials. But the idea that this had anything to do with John McCain's decision to tap Palin is easily debunked.

Still, for all of this, Trig Trutherism seems to have gained a significant following. There doesn't appear to be any polling on the Trig question, but when we ran a dismissive post about the Trig Truthers last week, we were deluged with angry emails and tweets. (Sullivan, one of the leading doubters of Palin's pregnancy, wrote a post accusing me of incuriosity and laziness.) Fed up with the attention the subject has received, the Huffington Post took the step this week of banning Trig Truthers. Whether we like it or not, this is a conspiracy theory that has gotten big enough to warrant a response.

(On a personal note, I should add that I hold no brief for Palin, and I've covered her critically in the past -- see here, here, here and here.)

With that in mind, here we go.

Trig Truthers have fixated on any number of details about Sarah Palin's pregnancy. Sullivan, for example, thinks it was irresponsible that, shortly before she went into labor, Palin got on a plane from Texas, where she had been speaking at a conference, and flew to Alaska.

But whether Palin acted irresponsibly is beside the point. The most important tenet of Trig Trutherism, of course, is that Palin simply was not pregnant before Trig was born. To establish this, Trig Truthers point to the news account of Palin's March 5, 2008, announcement that she was seven months pregnant. In that story in the Anchorage Daily News, some Alaska politicos expressed their surprise that Palin was pregnant because she was not showing as much as some women do at that stage. (Trig was ultimately born a month early, on April 18.) Trig Truthers also point to some photos of Palin from that period that supposedly show an unusually flat stomach.

But these are the facts: There are numerous independent eyewitnesses who spent considerable time with Palin in early 2008 and who observed that she was pregnant. We spoke to several of them, and their accounts are detailed below. Their eyewitness accounts should carry more weight than the doubts of bloggers scrutinizing a few photos posted on the Web.

Another key claim by the Trig Truthers -- repeated in the new academic paper that has re-popularized the conspiracy theory -- is that the press fell down on the job by failing to investigate the rumors. But that claim, too, simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Steve Quinn, who is now a freelancer, was the Alaska-based Associated Press journalist who wrote the wire story reporting that Palin was pregnant in early March 2008. He told us that rumors were circulating that Palin was not truly pregnant even back then -- before she gave birth and well before she was tapped to be John McCain's running mate. So, like any good reporter, Quinn looked into it -- twice -- and came away with solid reasons to believe there was no hoax.

According to Quinn, in the days immediately after Palin announced her pregnancy that March, he was in the governor's office and asked her directly about the rumors. Palin smiled and, Quinn says, lifted an outer layer of clothing to show that she was indeed pregnant. "She was able to show a thin layer of clothing against her stomach that revealed an enlarged abdomen area," he says.

Quinn added that he heard from female legislators and friends of the governor that they suspected, based on physical changes, that Palin was pregnant well before she announced the news.

Several months later, after Palin had been tapped for the No. 2 slot on the GOP ticket, Quinn began looking into the rumors again. He called Palin's doctor, Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, who had personally induced Palin's labor in April. Baldwin-Johnson called him back several days after the Republican convention ended in early September. Quinn asked her directly if Trig was Sarah Palin's baby. "The doctor flat-out told me it was Palin's child," he recalled.

We also spoke to Erika Bolstad, a veteran McClatchy reporter who covers Washington for the Anchorage Daily News. In early 2008, Bolstad began working on a story about the vice-presidential buzz surrounding Palin. When Palin traveled to Washington for a meeting of the National Governors Association, held the weekend of Feb. 23-25, Bolstad caught up with Palin for an in-person interview. This was about a week before the pregnancy was announced, and about seven weeks before Palin gave birth to Trig. Bolstad told us that she distinctly remembers thinking that the governor looked pregnant.

"When I interviewed her and heard the news a few days later that she was pregnant, there was no doubt in my mind that it was true," she said. "I saw her. She looked pregnant."

At the time of the National Governors Association conference, Sam Bishop was a staffer in the Alaska governor's office in Washington. Bishop, who is now an editor at the Fairbanks News-Miner, spent a large chunk of the second day of the conference -- Feb. 24, 2008 -- accompanying Palin to interviews and meetings. When he read the announcement about a week later that Palin was pregnant, Bishop told us, "I just slapped my forehead, and went, 'Duh!'"

Added Bishop: "It was so clear to me that she had been pregnant. She was wearing large scarves, clothing that was not form-fitting. Her face was more filled out than normal. She was very much pregnant, and fairly far along, when I met her."

Others reporters who were covering Palin at the time said she was showing clear signs of pregnancy.

That includes Anchorage Daily News columnist Julia O'Malley, who wrote last week:

Even before the announcement, she seemed to be putting on weight. She wore baggy jackets and scarves. Before the announcement, she acted nervous when photographers tried to take her picture. Later on, her face filled out. Her fingers swelled. She had a noticeable belly.

Then there is journalist Cherie Shirey of KTVA in Anchorage, who told the Huffington Post in 2008:

We worked with Governer Palin many times in 2008. Our reporters worked her on location and in the studio and I worked with her myself. She was definitely pregnant. You could see it in her belly and her face.

This April 13, 2008 picture of a clearly pregnant Palin is from an interview with KTVA reporter Andrea Gusty (click for full size):

It was taken a few days before Palin gave birth. When Trig Truthers questioned the veracity of the photo, Gusty followed up with a segment describing the interview and Palin's pregnancy in detail:

In total, that's six independent witnesses, none of whom have a reason to lie for Palin. They all say she was pregnant.

Finally, there is Frank Bailey, a disgruntled former Palin aide who has a book coming out about his experiences at Palin's side. In it, he reveals that "he visited Sarah Palin at the hospital just hours after Trig was born and spotted Bristol sitting in the waiting room," according to a description of his book by a Daily Beast reporter who obtained an early copy.

That's in line with what reporter Lori Tipton of Alaska television station KTUU has described about her interaction with Bristol at the hospital seven hours after Trig's birth:

And Bristol [Palin] was in there, and I said to Bristol, "We should get some footage of you and your brother and your grandparents." And she’s like, "No I really don’t like to be photographed." And I said, "Are you sure?"  And she’s like, "Yeah, yeah, no."  And she didn’t have any make-up on or anything, but she was dressed in typical teenage attire, a tight shirt, low-cut jeans, you know, and we had heard the rumors before the delivery of this baby also, that Bristol was pregnant, and so, when my photographer and I got to the hospital and we saw her, I thought, well, clearly there’s no way that that girl just delivered a baby seven hours ago.

Bristol Palin, of course, did have a baby, Tripp, who was born in December 2008, just eight months after Trig was born. Bailey and Tipton's accounts, along with the timeline, provide overwhelming evidence that one of the popular Trig Truther theories -- that Bristol is Trig's real mother -- is not true.

Meanwhile, Palin's doctor, Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, wrote a detailed medical report on Palin that was released right before the election in November 2008. In the report (.pdf) the doctor described the pregnancy in detail:

At the time of her most recent pregnancy, Governor Palin had no health risk factors other than her age. Routine prenatal testing easly in the second trimester showed evidence of Trisomy 21, which was confirmed by perinatology consultation and amniocentesis. She followed the normal and recommended schedule for prenatal care, including follow-up perinatology evaluations to ensure that there was no significant congenital heart disease or other condition of the baby that would preclude delivery at her home community hospital. This child, Trig, was born at 35 weeks in good health. He was able to go home at two days of age with his mother. He has some minor problems with jaundice that required phototherapy in the hospital and at home for several days.

Baldwin-Johnson is the same doctor who spoke with Quinn, the AP reporter, after the '08 GOP convention and she also gave an interview to the Anchorage Daily News in April 2008 describing the delivery of Trig (and noting that she had induced labor).

Sullivan's refrain on this issue is that he does not endorse any conspiracy theory, he is merely asking questions. He simply wants Palin "to debunk this for once and for all, with simple, readily available medical records." He has proposed, for example, the release of "amniocentesis results with Sarah Palin's name on them."

It's worth noting that this posture is identical to the rhetoric used by Obama birthers (for instance, WorldNetDaily Birther czar Joseph Farah employs the "just asking for definitive piece of proof x" line here).

But the larger point is that continuously demanding more "proof" on an issue about which there is already overwhelming evidence is either irrational or disingenuous. And why would a piece of paper with amniocentesis results and Sarah Palin's name be more dispositive than the doctor's many statements and the testimony of all of the reporters who saw Palin pregnant? If you already believe everyone is lying and everything is a hoax, it wouldn't.

So where does all of this leave us? There are two potential narratives. One lacks affirmative evidence. The other has loads of it.

You can believe that Palin was wearing a pregnancy suit and Hollywood-quality makeup for weeks, all before she had a national profile. You can believe that she fooled all of those journalists with her pregnancy costume, including the AP reporter who literally inspected Palin's belly in her office. You can believe that Palin, and her entire family, and her doctor, and her disgruntled former aide Frank Bailey, have been lying to the press in a tightly organized and mind-bogglingly elaborate conspiracy. You can believe that the medical workers who were involved in Trig's delivery were paid off or have simply kept inexplicably quiet about the hoax. You can believe that Bristol Palin gave birth to Trig and then had another child just eight months later.

Or you can believe that Trig is Sarah Palin's son.


UPDATE: And here is a new first-person account from yet another Alaska reporter who questioned Palin about the rumors while she was pregnant.

By Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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