When Jim Asher, formerly the investigative editor in the Washington bureau of the McClatchy newspaper chain, tweeted Thursday that a former longtime aide to Hillary and Bill Clinton had "told me in person #Obama born in #kenya," he set off yet another in the seemingly endless side debates over who is to blame for which seamy aspect of contemporary politics.
Evidence on the question is ambiguous.
Asher’s account about his conversations with Sidney Blumenthal has become a hot issue among political activists since last week, when Donald Trump finally admitted the falseness of the so-called birther theories that he pushed for more than five years.
As part of their statement announcing his climb-down, Trump’s aides pushed another false narrative — that it was Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign that had started the questioning of where Obama was born and whether he met the constitutional test for being president.
There is no evidence that Clinton or her campaign ever raised that question, and her campaign fired one aide in Iowa who did circulate an email raising the issue. Some supporters of Clinton’s, however, certainly did raise the issue with reporters during the final stretch of the 2008 Democratic primary.
Blumenthal, whose penchant for spinning dark hypotheses long ago earned him the nickname "grassy knoll" — a reference to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories — did not work for the 2008 campaign. But he has been close to both Clintons since Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid in 1992, so he would be more than just a random, unhappy Clinton supporter.
As a result, Asher’s statement provided grist for the Trump campaign’s position.
Blumenthal has denied Asher’s account.
Asher, in a statement, said that “on the birther issue, I recall my conversation with Blumenthal clearly,” but “I have nothing in writing memorializing that conversation.”
The written records that do exist and the recollections of people involved at the time leave the question unsettled.
Asher, who subsequently was McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief for five years, met with Blumenthal one day in the spring of 2008 at the McClatchy office in Washington, Asher recalled.
Two emails from that period show that Blumenthal sent tips to Asher about potential Kenya-related stories critical of Obama. But they do not include anything involving Obama’s birth.
A March 17, 2008, email said:
“Jim: On Kenya, your person in the field might look into the impact there of Obama's public comments about his father. I'm told by State Dept officials that Obama publicly derided his father on his visit there and that was regarded as embarrassing and crossing the line by Kenyans for whom respect for elders (especially the father, especially a Muslim father, in a patrilineal society) is considered sacrosanct. Sidney.”
A second email, Asher said, involved possible “connections between Obama and Raila Odinga, who had described himself as Obama’s cousin and would run for president of Kenya” and links between Odinga and “controversial Muslim groups.”
The “person in the field” at the time was McClatchy’s Nairobi-based correspondent, Shashank Bengali, who is now a foreign correspondent for The Times. He looked into Blumenthal’s tips at the time and found they did not check out.
“Asher assigned me to look into everything related to Obama in Kenya,” Bengali said in an email.
“One of the things I researched was the false rumor that he was born in Kenya,” he said, “but I don't remember where that tip came from.”
Bengali said that although Asher passed along some tips specifically attributed to Blumenthal, he did not recall any conversations in which Blumenthal’s name was linked to the birthplace issue.
“I can't recall if we specifically discussed the birther claim,” he wrote Monday in an email to Asher, who contacted him after The Times and other news organizations asked Asher about his contacts with Blumenthal.
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2:53 p.m.: This article was updated to add Asher’s subsequent title as bureau chief.
The article was first published at 2:30 p.m.