A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Was Hillary Clinton the Original ‘Birther’?


Two Republican presidential candidates claim the so-called “birther” movement originated with the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008. While it’s true that some of her ardent supporters pushed the theory, there is no evidence that Clinton or her campaign had anything to do with it.

In an interview on June 29, Sen. Ted Cruz said “the whole birther thing was started by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008,” and earlier this year, Donald Trump claimed “Hillary Clinton wanted [Obama’s] birth certificate. Hillary is a birther.”

Neither Cruz nor Trump presented any evidence that Clinton or anyone on her campaign ever questioned Obama’s birthplace, demanded to see his birth certificate, or otherwise suggested that Obama was not a “natural born citizen” eligible to serve as president.

For those unfamiliar with the controversy over Obama’s birthplace, it refers to those who contend that Obama was born in Kenya and ineligible to be president.

At FactCheck.org, we have written about the issue of Obama’s birthplace on multiple occasions — indeed we were the first media organization to hold his birth certificate in our hot little hands and vouch for the authenticity of it. But facts have done little to squelch the conspiracy theories that continue to bounce around online.

The issue arose again this week in an interview with Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father. Yahoo News’ Katie Couric asked Cruz if he thought that was going to be an issue for voters.

“It’s interesting, the whole birther thing was started by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008 against Barack Obama,” Cruz said (at about the 25:25 mark). Cruz then went on to say that he believes he clearly meets the constitutional requirement for a president to be a “natural born citizen.”

The claim about Clinton’s tie to “birthers” was made earlier by Donald Trump in February at the CPAC event (at 24:20 mark). Trump — who has a history of pushing bogus theories about Obama’s birth —  said, “Hillary Clinton wanted [Obama’s] birth certificate. Hillary is a birther. She wanted … but she was unable to get it.”

We asked the Cruz campaign for backup, and it pointed us to two articles. The first ran in Politico on April 22, 2011, under the headline, “Birtherism: Where it all began.”

Politico, April 22, 2011: The answer lies in Democratic, not Republican politics, and in the bitter, exhausting spring of 2008. At the time, the Democratic presidential primary was slipping away from Hillary Clinton and some of her most passionate supporters grasped for something, anything that would deal a final reversal to Barack Obama.

According to the article, the theory that Obama was born in Kenya “first emerged in the spring of 2008, as Clinton supporters circulated an anonymous email questioning Obama’s citizenship.”

The second article, which ran several days after the Politico piece, was published by the Telegraph, a British paper, which stated: “An anonymous email circulated by supporters of Mrs Clinton, Mr Obama’s main rival for the party’s nomination, thrust a new allegation into the national spotlight — that he had not been born in Hawaii.”

Both of those stories comport with what we here at FactCheck.org wrote two-and-a-half years earlier, on Nov. 8, 2008: “This claim was first advanced by diehard Hillary Clinton supporters as her campaign for the party’s nomination faded, and has enjoyed a revival among John McCain’s partisans as he fell substantially behind Obama in public opinion polls.”

Claims about Obama’s birthplace appeared in chain emails bouncing around the Web, and one of the first lawsuits over Obama’s birth certificate was filed by Philip Berg, a former deputy Pennsylvania attorney general and a self-described “moderate to liberal” who supported Clinton.

But none of those stories suggests any link between the Clinton campaign, let alone Clinton herself, and the advocacy of theories questioning Obama’s birth in Hawaii.

One of the authors of the Politico story, Byron Tau, now a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, told FactCheck.org via email that “we never found any links between the Clinton campaign and the rumors in 2008.”

The other coauthor of the Politico story, Ben Smith, now the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, said in a May 2013 interview on MSNBC that the conspiracy theories traced back to “some of [Hillary Clinton’s] passionate supporters,” during the final throes of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. But he said they did not come from “Clinton herself or her staff.”

Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, said Cruz’s claim is false. “The Clinton campaign never suggested that President Obama was not born here,” Schwerin wrote to us in an email.

It is certainly interesting, and perhaps historically and politically relevant, that “birther” advocacy may have originated with supporters of Hillary Clinton — especially since many view it as an exclusively right-wing movement. But whether those theories were advocated by Clinton and/or her campaign or simply by Clinton “supporters” is an important distinction. Candidates are expected to be held accountable for the actions of their campaigns. Neither Cruz nor Trump, whose campaign did not respond to our request for backup material, provides any compelling evidence that either Clinton or her campaign had anything to do with starting the so-called birther movement.

— Robert Farley