In the first volume of his memoir, A Promised Land, former President Barack Obama delves into the false claims about his place of birth, which were frequently made early in his presidency — especially by then reality-television star Donald Trump and echoed by right-wing talk shows — that he was actually born in Kenya.
The claims, regularly referred to as the “birtherism” conspiracy theory, were patently false, and it was known then as well as it is now that Obama was an American-born citizen from Hawaii. In spite of that knowledge, however, Trump continued to insinuate that Obama was illegally seated as president, as the U.S. Constitution requires that only “a natural born citizen” can become commander-in-chief.
Obama wrote in his memoir that Trump’s lies provided millions of white Americans with bigoted sentiments toward the former president an “elixir for their racial anxiety.”
“It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted,” Obama said in his memoir. “Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling assertions that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president.”
Obama also writes that a shift was also becoming more apparent within the Republican Party itself, as Trump and other right-wing figures like Sarah Palin, “migrated from the fringe of GOP politics to the center — an emotional, almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any differences in policy or ideology.”
For the first two years of his presidency, Obama tried to disengage himself from the conspiracy theory. But in 2011, as the baseless claim continued to be debated in the media, the president obliged many of his critics by releasing his long-form birth certificate, while chastising them saying: “We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do.”
Despite Obama providing irrefutable proof of his birth in the U.S., Trump continued making claims that he wasn’t convinced. The business mogul even hinted that he believed it was possible that the former president was involved in the death of a health official over the issue.
“How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in plane crash today,” Trump wrote in a tweet in 2013. “All others lived.”
In the fall of 2016, as Trump was running for president against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, he finally acknowledged that the birther conspiracy was false. But rather than apologize for his role in the matter, Trump refused to take any responsibility, falsely claiming instead that it was a conspiracy created by Clinton campaign staff eight years prior.
Trump has yet to make any formal apology for suggesting Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. And in private, he has continued to push the claim, doing so several months into his presidency in 2017, according to reporting from The New York Times.
Trump has made similar bigoted remarks toward other Democratic lawmakers since then. In 2019, he attacked members of “the Squad” — Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — by tweeting that they ought to “go back” to the countries “from which they came from” — a long-established racist trope.
The remark was inaccurate in addition to being racist as three of the four representatives he attacked were born in the United States. Rep. Ilhan Omar, born in Somalia, has lived in the U.S. since she was 12, and has been a citizen since she was 17.
On the campaign trail in 2020, Trump suggested that then-candidate and now Vice President-elect Kamala Harris may also have been born outside of the U.S. “I heard today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Trump told reporters in August, qualifying his remarks by saying he had “no idea” whether the rumors he was peddling were true or not.
Harris was born in Oakland, California, in 1964.