Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence grew partly out of his willingness to stoke fringe theories about President Obama’s birthplace, views that made him popular with many Republicans and conspiracy buffs but became a drag on his White House aspirations.
Trump sought to sweep away five years of questioning Obama’s legitimacy in a few seconds Friday. He did so not with a thoughtful reflection exploring his change of heart or an apology, but a quick statement at the end of a promotional media spectacle showcasing his newest hotel.
And rather than acknowledge his role in the so-called birther movement that spread false claims about the president, Trump instead sparked two new unfounded theories: He blamed rival Hillary Clinton for having started it and took credit for being the one who “finished it.”
“President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period,” Trump said in quick remarks at an event honoring supportive veterans. “Now, we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
As the press shouted questions, Trump walked off stage and began touring the new hotel for the cameras.
The moment was classic Trump, a nothing-to-see-here reversal that may allow the GOP to begin to put Trump’s birther days behind them, but not without facing critics who say Trump’s campaign is built on falsehoods with few limits on what he will say in his pursuit of the presidency.
“We know who Donald is,” Clinton said to an African American women’s group in Washington, accusing Trump of “feeding the worst impulses” of bigotry with his campaign.
“For five years, he has led the birther movement to delegitimize the first black president,” she said. “His campaign was founded on this lie. There is no erasing it in history.”
The episode drew in Obama, who has endured questions about his birth in Hawaii for years, and appeared disdainful when asked about it Friday in the Oval Office.
“I was pretty confident about where I was born,” Obama told reporters. “I think most people were as well, and I would hope that a presidential election reflects more serious issues.”
As the presidential contest narrows, Trump has come under increasing pressure to distance himself from his role in the birther movement, which had long been consigned to the realm of fringe conspiracy theories. Democrats — and even some Republican leaders — have called the theory an effort to undermine the nation’s first black president.
Long after Obama released a copy of his birth certificate and others had stopped pressing the case, Trump continued promoting the view.
“The president should come clean,” Trump said on Irish television in 2014, in a clip unearthed by BuzzFeed late Thursday that showed him refusing still to accept that Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate was genuine proof. “A lot of people feel it wasn’t a proper certificate.”
As recently as Wednesday, Trump refused to concede in an interview published Thursday by the Washington Post that Obama was a natural-born American, which is a requirement for the presidency.
On Friday, the staging of his announcement, like so much of the campaign, was unusually promotional for such a serious issue.
As protesters rallied outside Trump’s Pennsylvania Avenue hotel, Trump told Fox Business News that he did not yet want to answer a question about Obama’s birthplace because he “wanted to keep the suspense going.”
Trump gathered media for what was expected to be a frank exchange. But it ended up being little more than a showcase for his new position — and new Trump property.
“Nice hotel!” Trump exclaimed, taking the stage in the Presidential Ballroom, a gold and neon-accented venue with several hanging chandeliers in the new hotel blocks from the White House.
After listening to veterans who endorse him laud his candidacy, Trump made his statement and abruptly left, ignoring reporters’ questions after claiming credit for resolving the problem.
In a statement, his aides accused Clinton of promoting the rumors during her long and fraught 2008 Democratic primary fight against Obama. At the time, a Clinton advisor had suggested in an internal memo that the campaign should focus on her middle-American roots, a counter to Obama’s multicultural upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia. The strategy was rejected and no evidence has emerged that she or her staff embarked on any organized effort to target his citizenship.
The Trump campaign promoted a clip Friday that seemed to show the opposite of what was intended — in it, Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, talks about firing either a low-level staffer or a volunteer who admitted to forwarding an email espousing unfounded assertions about Obama’s birthplace.
And as for Trump’s insistence that he “finished” the debate over Obama’s birthplace, he continued to question it long after 2011, when, his campaign said, he brought “this ugly incident to its conclusion” when Obama released his long-form birth certificate.
“What a liar,” Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the top Democrat in the Senate, said in a CNN interview shortly after Trump’s announcement. “He is just such a phony.”
Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, who were holding an annual gathering in Washington, denounced Trump as a “fraud” and “con artist.”
“It’s a defining moment for all those who want to denounce bigotry and racism,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). “Demand an apology from this man.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, “Most Americans can see right through what he was trying to do today.”
Republicans, though, were pleased that Trump has distanced his campaign from some of the harsh rhetoric in its final weeks.
“This is a ‘let’s move on’ moment,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican who helps candidates craft messages. “He has to become tolerable among independents and swing voters.… With every passing day, he becomes more tolerable and she becomes less,” he said of Clinton.
Others, though, were less enthused, seeing instead a nominee who once again veered off message when his campaign has been gaining in polls.
“The bar is so low with Trump that admitting that the incumbent president was born in the United States was viewed as progress by some,” said Ryan Williams, a GOP consultant and former spokesman for Mitt Romney.
“I don’t think it’s enough to sway undecided voters,” he said. “It really says a lot about things when major news outlets say it’s ‘breaking news’ that the Republican nominee for president admits the outgoing president is legitimate, eight years after he took office.”
Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli and Evan Halper contributed to this report.
3:25 p.m.: This story was updated with reaction to Trump’s statement.
This story was originally published at 9 a.m.