Last Friday, Donald Trump gathered the press at his glitzy new hotel for a news conference, had a famous birther introduce him and then proceeded to ramble for 25 minutes before tersely saying that Barack Obama was born in America, that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement and he ended it. Then he refused to take questions and continued on with what he apparently planned to be a free advertisement for his new business.
Pundits and reporters alike were shocked that Trump would suggest that he "ended" the controversy, presumably when he demanded the birth certificate and President Obama finally acquiesced just to shut him up. They pointed out that he flogged the controversy for years afterward and were appalled that he would think he could get away with pretending otherwise considering the public record.
There were some who also challenged his charges that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement in 2008. But then this happened:
former McClatchy DC bureau chief @jimasher tweeting that Sid Blumenthal pushed birther lie to him in 2008. Asking for comment
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) September 16, 2016
Shortly people on social media were reminded that a low-level staffer in Iowa had forwarded a birther email, was fired for it and the Clinton campaign apologized. And Clinton's 2008 pollster, Mark Penn wrote a memo which said in effect that Obama's exotic childhood could "hold him back." (It also said that they could never go negative on such a thing and they did not.) Clinton confidante did send emails with negative clippings and articles about Obama back in 2008 but denies spreading the birther lie. Nobody has ever reported it before and journalists such as James Fallows from the Atlantic who were privy to Blumenthal's emails do not remember ever seeing anything about the racist birther smear and are extremely skeptical that it happened. Moreover, this controversy has been amply documented going back to this piece by Chris Hayes in The Nation in 2007 and it was not in any way advanced by the Clinton campaign.
But the damage was done. By the time the Sunday shows rolled around, it was clear that while Trump may not have gotten away with claiming that he didn't push the birther smear relentlessly, he had managed to "raise questions" about Clinton being the one who started it all.
Kellyanne Conway gave a bravura performance on Meet the Press and Face the Nation, constantly bringing back the charge that Clinton had started it. Here's Chuck Todd's reaction on Meet the Press:
So I guess what I'm curious about, though, is who cares about the Clinton incident? Donald Trump, for five years, perpetuated this. This has been, arguably, part of his political identity for the last five years. So what difference does it make whether Clinton does it? Why do two wrongs make a right in this case?
He pressed her hard on Trump's pushing what she continued to call Clinton's smear after 2008. He continued to accept her premise.
John Dickerson of Face the Nation was not quite as easy on Conway's repeated accusations that Clinton had started it but when Reince Preibus let fly with this after Dickerson suggested that Clinton had nothing to do with it, it all went downhill fast:
PRIEBUS: And people get convicted every single day with circumstantial evidence that is enough to tip the scale.And by the preponderance of the evidence before us, Hillary Clinton or her campaign were definitely involved in this issue. So, we can’t keep saying it’s not true. That’s ridiculous.
PRIEBUS: I know you didn’t, but there’s enough media people out there claiming that that’s not true, as if it’s some fiction. It’s not fiction. It’s the truth.
DICKERSON: Sure. But when you think about -- it may be contributory, but Donald Trump spent the bulk of his time...
PRIEBUS: But he’s not denying it.
DICKERSON: No, I understand that. But I guess my point is this.
PRIEBUS: But she is denying it, and that’s ridiculous.
DICKERSON: My point -- well, her former campaign manager said...
PRIEBUS: All right, so everyone around her is involved, but not her, so, therefore, she’s innocent.
DICKERSON: Well, everyone around her is a little more than the evidence would support.
PRIEBUS: Her campaign deputy manager was apologizing on CNN three days ago for it.
DICKERSON: But she said she fired the one person who brought it up immediately. There’s a difference between firing one person immediately and then...
PRIEBUS: What about Sid Blumenthal? Was he involved or not?
DICKERSON: Well, let’s assume that he was.
DICKERSON: So, you have a person spreading rumors. And then you have someone making a five-year crusade, holding press conferences and spending money. Here’s my question to you, which is not to figure out the details anymore, but to ask you this question...
Priebus even managed to make it sound like she had committed a crime. Something along this line happened on every show. Yes, Trump got knocked for his birther madness. The press pushed his surrogates quite hard. Jake Tapper even managed to put Chris Christie on the defensive on State of the Union. But one Trump supporter after the other aggressively repeated the lie that Clinton was responsible for the smear.And the hosts were ineffective at best in denying it.
Back at the beginning of June as the primaries were finally closing out and the news began to shift it's focus to Trump vs Clinton I wrote piece for Salon in which I warned that the press was distorting the coverage for the sake of "balance" which was given the headline: Normalizing Trump, demonizing Hillary: The media’s shameful strategy for the 2016 election. The press is only helping Donald Trump by creating a false equivalency between the billionaire and Hillary. That dynamic has resulted in a funhouse mirror of an election in which Hillary Clinton is now seen as less honest than Donald Trump. According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, only 43% of all voters believe Hillary Clinton is honest enough to be president while 50% think that of Donald Trump. 54% believe Trump has been transparent while 37% believe that about Clinton.
Considering the mountain of lies that Trump has told during this campaign and his refusal to release his tax returns, Trump Foundation accounting or how he plans to deal with his labyrinthine international business dealings once he wins the white house those are shocking numbers. But really,why wouldn't people believe that? Even when Trump's lie is so blatant that it's laughable, as it is with his birther excuses, with the help of the press, Trump and his minions managed to smear Clinton as the originator of the smear. That is a neat trick. One thing Trump's learned is that the press will always seek to balance their coverage so if he takes a hit he makes sure that Clinton takes one too.And they are happy to let him.