Donald Trump Didn't Really Give Up On Birtherism

by Seth Millstein

At an event on Friday, Donald Trump acknowledged that President Obama was born in the United States, thus abandoning his longtime skepticism of Obama's birthplace. And yet, despite media reports to the contrary, Trump didn't really give up on birtherism, because he had a bone fide birther introduce him at that very same event. That's like telling a judge that you've never robbed McDonald's, but hiring the Hamburgler as your lawyer.

The birther in question is retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, who took the stage moments before Trump on Friday. But the story begins years earlier.

Back in 2010, a physician in the Army refused to deploy to Afghanistan because he didn't think Obama was born in the U.S., and thus didn't think Obama was the legitimate commander-in-chief. This physician was ultimately convicted, imprisoned and discharged from the military — but before he was, McInerney wrote a letter of support on his behalf. In fact, McInerney filed a sworn affidavit in defense of this physician, citing "widespread and legitimate concerns that the President is constitutionally ineligible to hold office."

"According to our Constitution, the Commander in Chief must now, in the face of serious — and widely held — concerns that he is ineligible, either voluntarily establish his eligibility by authorizing release of his birth records or this court must authorize their discovery," McInerney wrote. "Our military MUST have confidence their Commander in Chief lawfully holds this office."

Trump's inclusion of McInerney at his speech is one of the purest embodiments of dog whistle politics of this entire campaign. Trump knows that his skepticism of Obama's birthplace is untenable if he wants to win over general election voters. At the same time, he can't afford to alienate his core base of support, and only 23 percent of pro-Trump voters believe that Obama was born in America, according to a May poll.

So, Trump tries to have it both ways. He says that he believes Obama was born in the U.S., but does so with a birther on stage next to him. The idea is that the presence of McInerney — a man who's unknown to most Americans but popular amongst conspiracy theorists — will signal to Trump's supporters that Trump, in his heart, is still on board with the idea that maybe Obama wasn't born in the U.S. after all.

This, in turn, speaks the the biggest obstacle Trump faces in his quest for the presidency. In order to win the election, Trump needs to expand his base, but he can only do this by moderating or disowning his more odious views — and that runs the risk of turning off his existing base. His speech with McInerney is an example of Trump's attempt to thread the needle. It's unclear that this strategy will work. We'll know for certain in two months.