Would-be 2012 Republican nominee Donald Trump is riding doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate to the front of the party’s presidential contender field, the latest sign that the long-standing fringe controversy is going mainstream.
The New York real estate magnate and reality show star, fresh off a Wall Street Journal poll that shows him tied for second among Republican voters as their choice for the presidential nominee, jumped back into the “birther” controversy Sunday.
“Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate? The fact is, if he wasn’t born in this country, he shouldn’t be the president of the United States,” the billionaire developer said in a CNN interview that aired Sunday. The Constitution requires that the president be a “natural-born citizen.”
“It’s a very sad thing, because the people - the birthers - they got labeled and they got labeled so negatively and even the word ‘birther’ is a negative word. If you come out and … even question, the press goes wild. They get angry at the question,” he said.
Far from backing away, Mr. Trump seems to be embracing the birther controversy and relishing the confrontations with reporters. He has responded in print to critics and blitzed talk radio, morning shows and news programs to talk about birth certificates. Mr. Trump also has said he had sent private detectives to Hawaii to investigate the president’s birth.
Since Mr. Trump embraced the issue of Mr. Obama’s birth - or alternatively why he hasn’t released the state of Hawaii’s “long-form” birth certificate - he has gone from nowhere to the top tier of possible 2012 Republican candidates.
In the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, Mr. Trump and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are tied for second with 17 percent each among Republican primary voters behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 22 percent.
Pushing the birth issue may have helped Mr. Trump break out of the crowded field of potential 2012 standard-bearers, but it’s not something the White House is taking too seriously.
David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and a top adviser, called the spate of Trump comments and appearances a “sideshow.”
“There’s zero chance that Donald Trump would ever be hired by the American people,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” taking a jab at Mr. Trump’s signature phrase on his reality show “The Apprentice.”
Many Democrats - and Republicans, for that matter - say the furor over whether Mr. Obama was born in the United States is more politically damaging to Republicans.
“I saw Donald Trump kind of rising in the polls. Given his behavior, and the spectacle of the last couple of weeks, I hope he keeps on rising,” Mr. Plouffe said.
Mr. Trump bluntly disagreed, telling Candy Crowley for her “State of the Union” program that aired Sunday on CNN that “I think it’s a very bad issue for the president, not for the Republican Party.”
According to a mid-February Public Policy Polling survey, 51 percent of Republican voters believe that Mr. Obama was born in another country, a result consistent with other polls taken since the rumor took root in 2008.
The president has made public the certificate of live birth, which is the standard document Hawaii provides upon request. In addition, Mr. Obama’s birth notice was published in Honolulu papers in 1961.
Though the certificate of live birth constitutes legal proof under Hawaii and federal law, Hawaii state officials say they also have seen the “long-form” certificate that the state keeps and have said it also has Mr. Obama being born in Honolulu. However, privacy laws prevent the state from releasing that document to anyone, though it would be available for the president to inspect personally. Mr. Obama has fought in court against the release.
But many in the so-called birther movement, fueled by talk-radio conspiracists and skeptical comments from Republican leaders, remain unconvinced - and they have found a champion in Mr. Trump, who has jousted in recent weeks with everyone from Fox’s Bill O’Reilly to the women on “The View.”
On MSNBC last month, he defended his stand.
“I am embracing the issue and I’m proud of the issue. I think somebody has to embrace the issue because, frankly, the people that are - and I don’t like the name ‘birther,’ because I think it’s very unfair and I think it’s very derogatory to a lot of very good people who happen to think that there’s a possibility that this man was not born in this country,” he said.
But many in politics and the media, like New York Times columnist Gail Collins and Republican strategist Karl Rove, argue that the “birther” issue further marginalizes a would-be candidate who was already a long shot to be taken seriously in the race.
Others point out that while the notoriously self-promoting billionaire has climbed into the thick of the Republican mix in recent polls, his “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show also has experienced a ratings bump.
But when Ms. Collins dismissed him as “loopy,” the blunt-spoken Mr. Trump fired back with a letter to the Times last week saying, “I have great respect for Ms. Collins in that she has survived so long with so little talent.”
That refusal to back down in the face of mainstream media scorn has won admirers among the GOP rank and file - and even some grudging respect from other Republican contenders.
“I appreciate that ‘The Donald’ wants to spend his resources in getting to the bottom of something that so interests him and many Americans - you know, more power to him,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said Saturday on Fox News. “He’s not just throwing stones from the sidelines; he’s digging in there.”
Mrs. Palin said at a February on-stage interview in New York that she doesn’t doubt the president’s citizenship and called the birth controversy - along with claims that Mr. Obama is or was a Muslim - “distractions.”
Her Saturday interview may indicate a half-position open to Republicans who do not want to dismiss a position common among their base - saying they do not doubt Mr. Obama’s citizenship but question his refusal to release the “long-form” document. They say it implies a preference for secrecy over disclosure.
“I think he was born in Hawaii,” Mrs. Palin said, citing the 1961 newspaper birth notices, but “obviously there’s something there that the president doesn’t want people to see. … He’s going to great lengths to make sure that it isn’t shown. … That’s kind of perplexing.”
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.