Is Donald Trump willing to go back to being a birther?
While Barack Obama was president, no one more conspicuously questioned his legitimacy than his eventual successor. “I’m starting to think that he was not born here,” Trump said in 2011—and if Obama was not born in America, under the Constitution he had no business being president. In 2012 Trump tweeted that an “extremely credible source” claimed the birth certificate Obama had produced was a “fraud.”
It wasn’t until last September that Trump, now running for president himself, let the matter drop. “President Obama was born in the United States—period,” he said, and blamed the notion that Obama might not have been on his opponent. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” said Trump. “I finished it.”
But Trump didn’t finish it. And he might not even have put it behind him.
Though it cost Trump nothing to indulge the birthers year after year, others paid a price. The martyr of the birther movement was Terry Lakin, an army colonel court-martialed in 2010 and sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to report for duty in Afghanistan. Lakin held that the order was unconstitutional, in that it was authorized by an “illegitimate” president. Lakin told his story in Officer’s Oath, a book subtitled, “Why My Vow to Defend the Constitution Demanded I Sacrifice My Career.”
For a time I was receiving e-mails from the Terry Lakin Action Fund every few days. Eventually it fell off and I forgot about Lakin.
That just changed. In 2011 the Obama White House created a We the People website on which Americans were invited to post petitions. If you did, and if at least 100,000 people signed it, the White House promised to respond.
When Trump took office he took down all the pending petitions and archived them, but the website itself survived. New petitions have already been posted, and one of them calls Lakin’s conviction a “grave injustice [that] needs to be addressed and corrected ASAP.”
Corrected how? I asked Lakin’s friend Marco Ciavolino, who edited his book and manages the action fund website. Ciavolino said he’s told Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, that the president should pardon Lakin. This would allow Lakin to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay and benefits, and make him eligible to go back into the army.
Curiously, both Lakin and Ciavolino wish the petition had been posted a year or two from now. “I think there’s a lot of more urgent things going on,” Lakin told me by phone from his home in Colorado. But an impetuous supporter of Lakin’s got the ball rolling as soon as Trump was sworn in. Lakin doubts the petition will collect 100,000 signatures. “It doesn’t look good at all,” he said.
But what would the president do if the petition did garner so much support? He could ignore it—a response to any such petition was a promise, not a legal obligation, and it was Obama’s promise, not Trump’s. Or he could reject it. Either way he’d be stiffing the segment of his base whose cause Trump once abetted—and benefited from. Or he could offer Lakin some sympathy and satisfaction. But Trump has already flipflopped once over the birther issue, and he might not want to flipflop again.
Visit Lakin’s website now and you’ll find he hasn’t quit the cause. “The Obama documents are forgeries,” the site tells us, and anyone who needs convincing is invited to watch a video of a news conference just last December in which Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, said his own “investigation” proved Obama’s so-called birth certificate was “fraudulently created.” The Lakin site asks, “How much evidence do we need?” and invites us to contribute to an action fund and sign the petition.
“It is our position,” says the website, “that Dr. Lakin took a principled, rational, and well-thought-out action to protect the integrity of our Constitution. He was not in the street being shot by water cannons or part of mass actions. He is one man who has stood alone to defend a key provision of our Constitution. He should be rewarded.”
Lakin told me he has never met Trump, though he did attend a Trump rally last year, and has had no direct contact with the White House. He wouldn’t be surprised if Trump ignores the petition no matter how many people sign it.
I wondered what he thought when Trump let it be known he’d concluded Obama was born in America after all.
“People say things all the time,” Lakin said. “Whether it’s [just] rhetoric, I don’t know. All of our leaders seem to be able to lie for their political gain.”
Ciavolino says that when Trump declared himself a birther the Lakin camp began faxing Cohen “every piece of research” they had. Eventually Cohen’s office replied, “Stop faxing, we get it.” But that was that. “No specific response was ever received by me or others either way,” Ciavolino told me. “They just gathered the info and then dropped it.”
Neither he nor Lakin sounded at all confident that Trump would come through this time either.