The ‘Birther’ Movement & Ruckus Over Kamala Harris’ Eligibility

This is not the first time that Trump has tried to discredit a leader, based on questions of birth and citizenship.

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Explainers
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Last week, Donald Trump <a href="https://www.thequint.com/news/world/trump-promotes-false-claim-about-harris-not-being-a-us-citizen">stoked rumours</a> that questioned Kamala Harris’ eligibility to be America’s Vice-President, based on her parents’ immigration status at the time of her birth.
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Last week, Donald Trump stoked rumours that questioned Kamala Harris’ eligibility to be vice president of the US, based on her parents’ immigration status at the time of her birth.

Referring to an opinion piece in the Newsweek, he said, “I just heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements and by the way the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer. I have no idea if that’s right. I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president.”

This is not the first time that Trump has tried to discredit a leader, based on questions of birth and citizenship.

In fact, he was the most prominent promoter of the ‘Birther Movement’ against Barack Obama, repeatedly questioning if he was foreign-born, and infamously demanding his birth certificate.

What exactly is the ‘Birther Movement’ and how does it affect American politics today?

The ‘Birther’ Movement & Ruckus Over Kamala Harris’ Eligibility

  1. 1. The Origins of ‘Birther’

    ‘Birtherism’ is a movement and essentially a conspiracy theory which claims that former US President Barack Obama was born abroad and was, as a result, ineligible to be the president. Similarly, a ‘birther’ is a person who subscribes to or promotes this incorrect belief.

    The question of Obama’s birthplace has also been intertwined with questions about his religion.

    As early as Obama’s US Senate Campaign in 2004, columnist Andy Martin, who is usually credited with starting the birther movement, declared him a fraud, who ‘has treated his Muslim heritage as a dark secret’.

    The matter resurfaced in 2008, in the form of chain mails, circulated by some hardcore disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, during her ill-fated campaign against the then Senator Obama, reported The Atlantic. According to Politico, one such email about the nature of Obama’s birth read:

    “Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.”

    However, the Clinton campaign and its staff itself did not engage and Clinton herself remarked that Obama was not a Muslim “as far as I know”, reported BBC.

    The combination of these elements gave rise to the misguided belief that not only was Obama ineligible to be President, but also he was a secret Muslim who was planning to undermine America from within. The result was a host of lawsuits being filed with the intention of preventing him from taking the oath of office.

    Expand
  2. 2. Trump’s Role in the Movement

    In 2010, at the urge of Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, the National Enquirer, an American tabloid newspaper, began promoting a potential Trump presidential campaign, and with Cohen’s involvement, began questioning Obama’s birthplace and citizenship, reported Associated Press.

    In March 2011, during the Republican Primary, speaking about Obama, Trump told Fox News, “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate – maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim; I don’t know.”

    “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told NBC, adding that he was sending a team of investigators to Hawaii to learn the truth. Though he did not run formally, and endorsed Mitt Romney instead, his popularity rose sharply in the primary polls, reported The Atlantic.

    After Obama released his long-form birth certificate on 27 April 2011, Trump said “I am really honoured and I am really proud, that I was able to do something that nobody else could do.”

    But over the years, he continued to bring up the issue.

    In August 2012, he tweeted that he had an “extremely credible source” who told him the birth certificate was a fraud. In October of the same year, he promised to donate $5 million to the charity of US President Barack Obama’s choice if the latter released his college and passport records. In 2013, he raised suspicion about the death of a Hawaiian health official who verified copies of Obama’s “birth certificate”. In 2014, he asked hackers to access Obama’s college records and check his “place of birth”.

    It was only in September 2016, as the Republican Party presidential nominee, that Trump conceded that “President Barack Obama was born in the US. Period.”

    Trump also argued in 2016 that his Republican rival Ted Cruz was not eligible to run for president because he was born in Canada to a US citizen mother and a Cuban-born father.

    Expand
  3. 3. How Did Obama Respond?

    On 12 June 2008, Obama’s campaign responded to the rumours by posting an image of his birth certificate on its own fact-check website, “Fight The Smears”. In releasing the certificate, the Obama website declared that the rumours “aren’t actually about that piece of paper – they’re about manipulating people into thinking Barack is not an American citizen”.

    The image is a scan of a laser-printed document obtained from and certified by the Hawaii Department of Health on 6 June 2007. It is a “certification of live birth”, sometimes referred to as a “short-form” birth certificate, and contains less information than the “long-form” birth certificate, which Hawaii no longer issues.

    Frequent arguments of those questioning Obama’s eligibility related to the fact that he did not originally release a copy of his “original” or “long-form” birth certificate, but rather a “short-form” version that did not include all of the information given on 1961 Hawaii-issued birth certificates. It was claimed that the use of the term “certification of live birth” on the first document means it is not equivalent to a “birth certificate”.

    These arguments have been debunked numerous times by media investigations, every judicial forum that has addressed the matter, and Hawaiian government officials.

    The director of the state Department of Human Health confirmed that the state “has Senator Obama’s original birth certificate on record in accordance with state policies and procedures”, according to FactCheck.org.

    The short form is “prima facie evidence of the fact of birth in any court proceeding”.

    Further, on 27 April 2011, White House staffers gave reporters a copy of the certificate, and posted a PDF image of the certificate on the White House website. The certificate reconfirmed the information on the official short-form certificate released in 2008, and provided additional details such as the name of the hospital at which Obama was born.

    Expand
  4. 4. Impact of the Movement

    With the growing prevalence of fake news, it is noteworthy to analyse the ground impact of such movements. Survey data shows that the ‘birther’ rumour gained considerable ground in the minds of a large number of Americans. The Atlantic reported that by 2011, nearly half of Republican voters believed Obama was not born in the US.

    In a national survey conducted right after the 2008 election, studies showed that 91 percent of Americans had heard or read about the rumour that Obama is a Muslim.

    As many as 55 percent had been exposed to counter information or to some suggestion that the rumour might be false, while 22 percent believed that the rumour was true. Similarly, in the same survey, 59 percent had heard or read that Obama does not qualify as a natural-born citizen of the US, and only 30 percent had heard some refutation of this rumour.

    Like other political myths, the rumours about Obama’s birthplace are persistent.

    Despite repeated efforts to correct the record by the news media and political elites, and even after the release of two different versions of his birth certificate and several investigative reports by news organisations about the circumstances of his birth, a significant portion of the American public still believes that Obama was not born in the US, was raised a Muslim, and was therefore ineligible to serve as president. As recently as December 2017, 31 percent of US adults believed it was possible Obama was born outside the country, according to a poll by YouGov.

    Expand
  5. 5. So, Is Kamala Harris Eligible or Not?

    John Eastman, in his controversial opinion piece for Newsweek, argues, “Her father was (and is) a Jamaican national, her mother was from India, and neither was a naturalised US citizen at the time of Harris’ birth in 1964. That, according to commentators, makes her not a ‘natural born citizen’ – and therefore ineligible for the office of the president and, hence, ineligible for the office of the vice president.”

    While Newsweek apologised for this piece in an ‘Editor’s Note’ attached to the same article, which is still online, the claim itself has been effectively debunked by constitutional experts. Harris was born in Oakland, California, on 20 October 1964. The 14th Amendment reads: “All persons born or naturalised in the US, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the US and of the State wherein they reside.”

    Meanwhile, the Joe Biden campaign sent a scathing statement in response to President Trump stoking the false conspiracy theory, saying that he had “sought to fuel racism and tear our nation apart” and was resorting to “wretched, demonstrably false lies”, reported USA Today.

    According to Axios, speaking about Harris’ eligibility to serve as vice president, Trump later said that “It’s not something that we will be pursuing”, but has refused to actually state that she is eligible.

    “The VP has the same eligibility requirements as the president,” Juliet Sorensen, a law professor at Northwestern University, told Associated Press. She added, ”Kamala Harris, she has to be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a resident in the US for at least 14 years. She is. That’s really the end of the inquiry.”

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    Expand

The Origins of ‘Birther’

‘Birtherism’ is a movement and essentially a conspiracy theory which claims that former US President Barack Obama was born abroad and was, as a result, ineligible to be the president. Similarly, a ‘birther’ is a person who subscribes to or promotes this incorrect belief.

The question of Obama’s birthplace has also been intertwined with questions about his religion.

As early as Obama’s US Senate Campaign in 2004, columnist Andy Martin, who is usually credited with starting the birther movement, declared him a fraud, who ‘has treated his Muslim heritage as a dark secret’.

The matter resurfaced in 2008, in the form of chain mails, circulated by some hardcore disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, during her ill-fated campaign against the then Senator Obama, reported The Atlantic. According to Politico, one such email about the nature of Obama’s birth read:

“Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy. She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.”

However, the Clinton campaign and its staff itself did not engage and Clinton herself remarked that Obama was not a Muslim “as far as I know”, reported BBC.

The combination of these elements gave rise to the misguided belief that not only was Obama ineligible to be President, but also he was a secret Muslim who was planning to undermine America from within. The result was a host of lawsuits being filed with the intention of preventing him from taking the oath of office.

Trump’s Role in the Movement

In 2010, at the urge of Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, the National Enquirer, an American tabloid newspaper, began promoting a potential Trump presidential campaign, and with Cohen’s involvement, began questioning Obama’s birthplace and citizenship, reported Associated Press.

In March 2011, during the Republican Primary, speaking about Obama, Trump told Fox News, “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate – maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim; I don’t know.”

“I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told NBC, adding that he was sending a team of investigators to Hawaii to learn the truth. Though he did not run formally, and endorsed Mitt Romney instead, his popularity rose sharply in the primary polls, reported The Atlantic.

After Obama released his long-form birth certificate on 27 April 2011, Trump said “I am really honoured and I am really proud, that I was able to do something that nobody else could do.”

But over the years, he continued to bring up the issue.

In August 2012, he tweeted that he had an “extremely credible source” who told him the birth certificate was a fraud. In October of the same year, he promised to donate $5 million to the charity of US President Barack Obama’s choice if the latter released his college and passport records. In 2013, he raised suspicion about the death of a Hawaiian health official who verified copies of Obama’s “birth certificate”. In 2014, he asked hackers to access Obama’s college records and check his “place of birth”.

It was only in September 2016, as the Republican Party presidential nominee, that Trump conceded that “President Barack Obama was born in the US. Period.”

Trump also argued in 2016 that his Republican rival Ted Cruz was not eligible to run for president because he was born in Canada to a US citizen mother and a Cuban-born father.

How Did Obama Respond?

On 12 June 2008, Obama’s campaign responded to the rumours by posting an image of his birth certificate on its own fact-check website, “Fight The Smears”. In releasing the certificate, the Obama website declared that the rumours “aren’t actually about that piece of paper – they’re about manipulating people into thinking Barack is not an American citizen”.

The image is a scan of a laser-printed document obtained from and certified by the Hawaii Department of Health on 6 June 2007. It is a “certification of live birth”, sometimes referred to as a “short-form” birth certificate, and contains less information than the “long-form” birth certificate, which Hawaii no longer issues.

Frequent arguments of those questioning Obama’s eligibility related to the fact that he did not originally release a copy of his “original” or “long-form” birth certificate, but rather a “short-form” version that did not include all of the information given on 1961 Hawaii-issued birth certificates. It was claimed that the use of the term “certification of live birth” on the first document means it is not equivalent to a “birth certificate”.

These arguments have been debunked numerous times by media investigations, every judicial forum that has addressed the matter, and Hawaiian government officials.

The director of the state Department of Human Health confirmed that the state “has Senator Obama’s original birth certificate on record in accordance with state policies and procedures”, according to FactCheck.org.

The short form is “prima facie evidence of the fact of birth in any court proceeding”.

Further, on 27 April 2011, White House staffers gave reporters a copy of the certificate, and posted a PDF image of the certificate on the White House website. The certificate reconfirmed the information on the official short-form certificate released in 2008, and provided additional details such as the name of the hospital at which Obama was born.

Impact of the Movement

With the growing prevalence of fake news, it is noteworthy to analyse the ground impact of such movements. Survey data shows that the ‘birther’ rumour gained considerable ground in the minds of a large number of Americans. The Atlantic reported that by 2011, nearly half of Republican voters believed Obama was not born in the US.

In a national survey conducted right after the 2008 election, studies showed that 91 percent of Americans had heard or read about the rumour that Obama is a Muslim.

As many as 55 percent had been exposed to counter information or to some suggestion that the rumour might be false, while 22 percent believed that the rumour was true. Similarly, in the same survey, 59 percent had heard or read that Obama does not qualify as a natural-born citizen of the US, and only 30 percent had heard some refutation of this rumour.

Like other political myths, the rumours about Obama’s birthplace are persistent.

Despite repeated efforts to correct the record by the news media and political elites, and even after the release of two different versions of his birth certificate and several investigative reports by news organisations about the circumstances of his birth, a significant portion of the American public still believes that Obama was not born in the US, was raised a Muslim, and was therefore ineligible to serve as president. As recently as December 2017, 31 percent of US adults believed it was possible Obama was born outside the country, according to a poll by YouGov.

So, Is Kamala Harris Eligible or Not?

John Eastman, in his controversial opinion piece for Newsweek, argues, “Her father was (and is) a Jamaican national, her mother was from India, and neither was a naturalised US citizen at the time of Harris’ birth in 1964. That, according to commentators, makes her not a ‘natural born citizen’ – and therefore ineligible for the office of the president and, hence, ineligible for the office of the vice president.”

While Newsweek apologised for this piece in an ‘Editor’s Note’ attached to the same article, which is still online, the claim itself has been effectively debunked by constitutional experts. Harris was born in Oakland, California, on 20 October 1964. The 14th Amendment reads: “All persons born or naturalised in the US, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the US and of the State wherein they reside.”

Meanwhile, the Joe Biden campaign sent a scathing statement in response to President Trump stoking the false conspiracy theory, saying that he had “sought to fuel racism and tear our nation apart” and was resorting to “wretched, demonstrably false lies”, reported USA Today.

According to Axios, speaking about Harris’ eligibility to serve as vice president, Trump later said that “It’s not something that we will be pursuing”, but has refused to actually state that she is eligible.

“The VP has the same eligibility requirements as the president,” Juliet Sorensen, a law professor at Northwestern University, told Associated Press. She added, ”Kamala Harris, she has to be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a resident in the US for at least 14 years. She is. That’s really the end of the inquiry.”

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