WASHINGTON (AFP) – After years of fuelling conspiracy theories, Republican White House nominee Donald Trump admitted on Friday (Sept 16) that President Barack Obama is an American as he tries to neutralise damaging charges of racism.
In a much-hyped televised event, Trump gave a lengthy plug for his new Washington hotel before acknowledging that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”
The mogul-turned-politico pointedly did not apologise, nor did he walk back similarly baseless claims that Obama – whose father was a Kenyan Muslim – founded the violent Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
Instead, he tried to pin blame for “birtherism” on his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, whom he accused, without evidence, of starting the movement that questions Obama’s nationality and right to be president.
“Her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean,” Trump said.
Since at least 2011, the celebrity TV star has questioned Obama’s US citizenship, which is a legal prerequisite for becoming president.
The White House has long viewed Trump’s claims as racist, aimed at delegitimising the President.
The claims also served to launch Trump’s political career, propelling him onto the national stage and winning him fans on the far right.
But five years on, now in a tight presidential election race, Trump’s position has become a liability, repulsing black, Hispanic and moderate voters who he needs to win the Oval Office.
The controversy reignited on Thursday when Trump again demurred on Obama’s citizenship, forcing his campaign into damage control.
Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton jumped on the statement as more evidence Trump is unfit to be president.
“For five years, he has led the birther movement to delegitimise our first black president,” she said. “His campaign was founded on this outrageous lie. There is no erasing it in history.
“He’s feeding into the worst impulses, the bigotry and bias that lurks in our country,” she said.
“Barack Obama was born in America, plain and simple. And Donald Trump owes him and the American people an apology.”
Making her 2016 campaign debut Friday, First Lady Michelle Obama doubled down, saying the choice for voters was “excruciatingly clear,” between Clinton and a candidate who “traffics in prejudice fear and lies.” She said her husband had answered such slanders though legislative achievements and “by going high when they go low,” as she encouraged supporters to go to the polls.
Asked in the Oval Office about the renewed controversy Friday, President Obama gave the question short shrift and made a dig at the US media and its obsessive coverage of Trump.
“I am shocked that a question like that would come up at a time when we have so many other things to do,” he said, before adding “Well, I am not that shocked.”
“I was pretty confident about where I was born. My hope would be that the presidential election reflects more serious issues than that.”
In 2011, Obama produced his birth certificate – showing he was born at the Kapiolani Medical Centre in Hawaii on Aug 4, 1961 – to put an end to the allegations.
Shortly after, Obama appeared at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and publicly ridiculed Trump, who was in the audience.
“No one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”