WASHINGTON (AP) — After five years as the chief promoter of the false idea that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, Donald Trump reversed course and admitted on Friday that the president was — and then claimed credit for putting the issue to rest.
“President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Trump said in a brief statement read at the end of a campaign appearance. “Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
But as Trump sought to put that false conspiracy theory to rest, he stoked another, claiming that the “birther movement” was started by rival Hillary Clinton. There is no evidence that that is true.
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it,” Trump said. “I finished it, you know what I mean.”
While the birther theory was pushed by some bloggers who backed Clinton’s primary campaign against Obama eight years ago, Clinton has long denounced what she’s called a “racist lie” that sought to “delegitimize America’s first black president.”
“Leading the birther movement is deplorable,” Clinton tweeted after his Friday event. “Attempting to say it ‘did a great service’ to the president who Trump attacked is asinine.”
Trump’s statement, in a sprawling ballroom at his new Washington hotel, lasted only a few seconds following a lengthy campaign event featuring military officers and award winners who have endorsed him. Trump did not address the issue until the end, turning the event into a de facto commercial for his campaign, as the major cable TV networks aired the full event live in anticipation of comments Trump had hyped hours before.
“I’m going to be making a major statement on this whole thing and what Hillary did,” he told the Fox Business Network. “We have to keep the suspense going, OK?”
For years, Trump has been the most prominent proponent of the “birther” idea. He used the issue to build his political profile and define his status as an “outsider” willing to challenge conventions.
He generally avoided the issue during the GOP primary, and Friday marked the first time he said in no uncertain terms he was mistaken.
As late as Wednesday, Trump refused to acknowledge Obama was born in Hawaii, declining to address the matter in a Washington Post interview published late Thursday night.
“I’ll answer that question at the right time,” Trump said. “I just don’t want to answer it yet.”
Clinton seized on Trump’s refusal during a speech Thursday night.
“This man wants to be our next president? When will he stop this ugliness, this bigotry?” she asked.
Hours later, Trump’s campaign spokesman Jason Miller issued a statement that suggested the question had been settled five years ago — by Trump.
“In 2011, Mr. Trump was finally able to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate,” Miller said.
“Mr. Trump did a great service to the president and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised,” he added.
The facts of Trump’s actions do not match Miller’s description. Trump repeatedly questioned Obama’s birth in the years after Obama released his birth certificate. In August 2012, for example, he was pushing the issue on Twitter.
“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” he wrote.
Even in January of this year, Trump sounded skeptical when asked whether he now believed the president was a natural-born citizen.
“Who knows? Who cares right now? We’re talking about something else, OK?” Trump said in a CNN interview. “I mean, I have my own theory on Obama. Someday I’ll write a book.”
Trump’s reversal comes as he works to win over African-American voters — many of whom have been turned off by his attempt to delegitimize the nation’s first black president.
Obama took the unprecedented step of releasing his long form birth certificate in 2011, amid persistent questions from Trump.
On the day he released the document, Obama jabbed at Trump, saying, “We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.”
The president on Friday added that he hoped the election would focus on more serious issues, and that he “was pretty confident about where I was born.”
After Trump’s event, the GOP nominee invited photographers and a camera on a tour of his new hotel property, without reporters present.
Meanwhile, the backdrop of blue curtains that Trump had spoken in front of collapsed, toppling a row of American flags like dominoes.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.