Lost amid the hoopla of reality star Donald Trump's decision to finally run for president of the United States is the fact that he still stubbornly continues to question whether the current occupant of that job -- Barack Obama -- was born in this country.
Conspiracy theories about the president's place of birth have enjoyed a fringe following ever since he rose to national prominence, but Trump has arguably been their most high-profile mouthpiece. Trump's agitating reached a boiling point in 2011, when he teased a potential run against Obama and routinely suggested his occupancy of the White House was illegitimate. Trump even commissioned investigators to go to Hawaii to unearth evidence to support his claims.
An exasperated Obama eventually held an infamous April 2011 press conference where he revealed his long form birth certificate, silencing the debate in most mainstream circles about whether he was indeed an American citizen from day one. Trump claimed full credit for forcing Obama's disclosure but even as recently as last year remained unsatisfied. "I got him to produce his so-called birth certificate, or whatever it was,” Trump told reporters. With Trump now officially in the race, the issue that has brought him the most free press -- and more than a few accusations of racism -- could be poised for a comeback.
"Birtherism," as it has become commonly known, remains a cherished conceit in some far right-wing circles and for some in the black community it stands out as a stunning reminder that despite Obama's remarkable status as the first non-white commander-in-chief, some people refuse to accept him as a true American. Of course, Trump took his condemnation of Obama's legitimacy even further than most, going so far as to suggest he wasn't intelligent enough to gain acceptance to Columbia University and later Harvard University, where he earned his law degree. When confronted about the potentially racially insensitive nature of his rhetoric, Trump assured reporters that he had a terrific relationship with "the blacks."
As the election approached the following fall, Trump made a heavily-hyped $5 million offer to Obama to present his college and passport records. When Obama didn't respond and was re-elected handily, Trump declared his victory a "total sham." Trump has since gone on to criticize Obama during his second term for not wearing a tie and for having an "unpresidential" walk. He has also suggested that the death of the state health director who verified copies of Obama's birth certificate in a 2013 plane crash may not have been accidental.
The president himself has tried to maintain the high road on the issue, almost always alluding to it through humor or bemused indifference. During a well-received correspondents' dinner performance in May 2011, the president made light of Trump's preoccupation with his birthplace while the business mogul sat in the audience in front of him.
“I know he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than ‘The Donald,’” Obama joked. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like: Did we fake the moon landing?"
Later the president made light of Trump's credentials, taking shots at his reality show "Celebrity Apprentice." Obama joked that deciding whether to "fire" the likes of Meatloaf, Gary Busey and Lil' Jon are the "kinds of decisions that keep me up at night."
Most critics agreed that Obama got the best of Trump that night, but the newly declared candidate has remained strident on the birtherism bandwagon. “You might say it is a distraction, I tell you, I have more fans and more followers, I have millions of people coming up to me on the street saying, ‘Don’t give that fight up,’” Trump said in 2014.
Trump has always viewed the birther issue cynically, as something that he doesn't necessarily have a personal stake in but does garner him more media attention. And yet his relentlessness on the topic has helped Trump become something of a folk hero on the right. Mitt Romney eagerly sought his endorsement in 2012 and Trump has been featured prominently in Republican cattle-calls for last three years.
Even if his candidacy is viewed largely as a publicity stunt, he has the ability to steer the conversation like few other Republicans because of his near-universal name recognition and celebrity status. If he chooses to resurrect his pet issue again, the question becomes whether his GOP rivals will take the bait.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seemed to dip his toe into birther territory when he told a Washington Post reporter earlier this year that he didn't know if Obama was Christian. And this comment followed a series of interviews during which former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani questioned whether Obama "loves America." Still, the one presidential hopeful who has been consistently willing to go full birther has been Trump.
At this year's annual CPAC conference, Trump declared that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was actually the original birther. "She wanted it but she wasn’t able to get it. John McCain fought really hard and really viciously to get his birth certificate. John McCain failed. Couldn’t get it. Trump comes along – and I’m not a sitting senator, I’m not a sitting anything else, I’m a good businessman – but Trump comes along and I said, ‘Birth certificate.’ He gave a birth certificate," Trump told the audience.
"Whether or not that was a real certificate, because a lot of people question it, I certainly question it—but Hillary Clinton wanted it, McCain wanted it, and I wanted it. He didn’t do it for them, he did it for me. So in one sense I’m proud of it. Now all we have to do is find out whether or not it’s real.”