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In recent weeks, the Donald Trump presidential campaign (feat. Mike Pence) has been rolling out a new effort, or at least that’s how people in the campaign are characterizing it: outreach to black Americans.
It hasn’t exactly been a smooth or well-received affair so far, however, with the candidate’s main pitch being “what the hell do you have to lose,” preceded by a litany of casual, stereotypical assumptions about the lives of black people and families in the United States. Failing schools, poverty, unemployment, being shot in the streets, that sort of thing.
Suffice to say, the efforts haven’t been met with any meaningful bump in the polls just yet, and it’s somewhat hard to imagine that the current tact is going to help Trump at all. If anything, it’s thrown his own assessment of the black experience in America into stark contrast, revealing an ignorant and stereotyping core.
And it’s not hard to see why black voters would be wary of Trump, even if his flailing new pleas for votes had never happened. After all, back in 2011 and 2012, Trump was essentially the loudest, most prominent spokesman for the birther movement, the conspiracy theory asserting that President Obama was not born in the United States, and is therefore ineligible to be president. In other words, the man who deliberately pumped birtherism into the mainstream to undermine the country’s first black president now wants black voters to support him.
One of his foremost surrogates was apparently none too pleased when he was asked about this bit of tawdry history on Sunday morning. Rudy Giuliani sat down for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union, and to say he refused to engage seriously with Trump’s past conspiracy theorizing would be putting it mildly.Tapper led off the interview with the birther question, telling Giuliani that while Trump seemed welcomed at a black church in Detroit, Michigan on Saturday, many black voters are still “troubled” by his repeated insistence that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen, and therefore is an illegitimate president. It should be noted and understood that the birther conspiracy theories are all shot-through with paranoia and racism, and it should come as absolutely no shock that Trump is paying a price for that now.
But Giuliani wasn’t having any of it, trying instead to deflect the criticism onto the Clinton campaign. “Well, you know, the very interesting thing is the first person who made that claim is Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani falsely claimed. The former New York City mayor is likely referring to when some scorned Clinton supporters in 2008 circulated false rumors about the place of Obama’s birth.
Tapper didn’t let Giuliani off that easy, correcting him by pointing out that the rumors were not started by “her herself,” but by “people around her.” Tapper and Giuliani were likely referring, albeit it obliquely, to an image of Obama wearing traditional Somali garb that hit the internet in 2008, which was briefly passed around by some state-level Clinton volunteers before it was flatly denounced by the campaign and the candidate. Giuliani continued:“They maybe have a faulty memory there, as to where that issue first came from.”
In short, Giuliani was trying to wriggle out of directly addressing his own candidate’s overt, vociferous, and enthusiastic endorsement of birtherism. He even memorably claimed to have sent private investigators to Hawaii to dig up dirt and prove his case, and insisted that “they cannot believe what they are finding.” There’s no evidence this was true, however, as his alleged investigators never appeared, and never provided a shred of evidence to say that Obama’s birth certificate was fraudulent.
It’s worth noting that Trump himself basically refuses to discuss this now, insisting he “doesn’t talk about [birtherism] anymore,” and that excuse has been met largely uncritically by the media. It’s a somewhat startling reality, considering the radicalism of what he was arguing.
Although endorsing such a movement would be a liability no matter how long ago it happened, Tapper then highlighted just how recently Trump had been stirring the pot. Namely, he insisted that Obama had faked his birth certificate as recently as February of 2015, mere months before he jumped into the Republican presidential primaries.He was speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and he left no doubt that he still believed in the conclusively debunked, inflammatory conspiracy theory. As such, Tapper asked Giuliani whether Trump should simply apologize if he really wants to appeal to minority voters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giuliani wasn’t down with the idea:
“You know, if everybody apologized for all the things they said in politics, all we’d be doing on television shows is apologizing. Maybe a lot of the Democrats should apologize for calling Donald Trump a racist, calling him all kinds of terrible names, it gets a little silly.”
Giuliani went on to defend Trump’s message to black voters. Specifically, he said that, while it wasn’t “the message of left-wing Democratic politics”―a message he compared favorably to his own policies while New York City’s mayor―that it was the first time “since Jack Kemp, and me” that a Republican had “gone into minority poor communities” to criticize Democratic policies.
Tapper didn’t try to press the issue any further. Instead, he simply noted that “many African-Americans are still mad about Donald Trump having tried to invalidate Barack Obama by claiming he was born in Africa,” and moved on to quizzing Giuliani about Trump’s recent trip to Mexico.
All in all, it was a pretty effective display of misdirection and avoidance on Giuliani’s part, but it also spoke to the tough spot the Trump campaign could find itself in if the media really started pressing on the birther question. When you get right down to it, there’s no answer that’s even halfway acceptable, especially when Trump himself is so plainly unwilling to make precise apologies for past wrongs.