WASHINGTON — It was an extraordinary moment: President Barack Obama strode into the White House briefing room Wednesday to reassure Americans he was born in the United States.
Speaking just after the White House distributed a Certificate of Live Birth sought by critics who questioned whether he was truly eligible to be president, Obama said he was releasing the document because, "We do not have time for this kind of silliness."
He said that his birth had been confirmed by Hawaiian officials of both parties and by news organizations but that the original document provided further proof that "yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii, Aug. 4, 1961, in Kapiolani hospital."
Wednesday's events were a testament to the power of the Internet and the influence of a flamboyant, media-savvy tycoon. The Internet kept the Obama birth theories simmering despite an avalanche of debunking by PolitiFact and other media fact-checkers, while the tycoon — possible Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — gave the theories new prominence.
Even before Obama spoke, Trump had claimed credit.
"Today, I am very proud of myself," he told reporters in New Hampshire, "because I have accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish. I was just informed while on the helicopter that our president has finally released a birth certificate."
Still, the most prominent skeptic remained skeptical.
"Now, we have to look at it," Trump said. "We have to see, is it real? Is it proper? What's on it? But I hope it checks out beautifully."
Questions about birth, religion — anti-Christ
Questions about Obama's birth began to circulate in the spring of 2008 as it became clear he would be the Democratic nominee for president. On blogs, Internet message boards and in chain e-mails, people raised doubts about whether Obama was patriotic, was a Muslim and, most importantly, whether he was born in Hawaii and eligible to be president.
PolitiFact, the St. Petersburg Times' fact-checking website, debunked many such falsehoods, ranging from claims that he took the oath of office to become a senator using a Koran, to one that the Book of Revelations says the anti-Christ will be a man of Muslim descent in his 40s. (Both were rated Pants on Fire.)
As claims about Obama's birth spread in summer 2008, the Obama campaign posted a copy of his Certification of Live Birth, a computer-generated document that said Obama was born in Honolulu. Hawaiian officials confirmed to PolitiFact it was a legitimate document that could be considered his birth certificate.
The claims subsided, but were rekindled about six months into Obama's presidency as skeptics said the computer-generated birth document might be a fake or a coverup. They wanted to see the original, which is sometimes called the long-form birth certificate.
The White House took no action to release it, which prompted more allegations from skeptics. They said Obama was actively trying to hide the original and spending $2 million on lawyers to block its release. (PolitiFact rated the $2 million claim False when Trump said it.)
Trump speaks up
When reporters asked about the birth certificate, Obama and White House officials insisted they had already provided the document by posting the computer-generated version.
Then came Trump.
After he signaled early this year he might run for president, Trump gave the issue new prominence. In interviews he repeatedly mentioned doubts about Obama's birth.
"The more I go into it, the more suspect it is," he said April 10 in a CNN interview, adding "it's a very strange situation. That's all I can tell you."
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said Wednesday that the White House could have gained politically by keeping the controversy going.
It was "probably in (Obama's) long-term political interests to allow this birther debate to dominate discussion in the Republican Party for months to come," Pfeiffer said. "But he thought even though it might have been good politics, he thought it was bad for the country."
Obama said he reached a turning point during the recent budget debate. "During that entire week, the dominant news story wasn't about these huge, monumental choices that we're going to have to make as a nation, it was about my birth certificate."
He said there were many problems facing the United States but that, "We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers. … We do not have time for this kind of silliness."
The document says Barack Hussein Obama II was born at Kapiolani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital at 7:24 p.m. on Aug. 4, 1961. It lists his father as Barack Hussein Obama, 25, lists his occupation as a university student and says he was born in Kenya, East Africa. It lists the president's mother as Stanley Ann Dunham, 18, and lists "none" as her "type of occupation outside home during pregnancy." It is signed by her, the attending doctor and a local registrar.
Correspondence released by the White House shows Obama wrote Hawaiian officials last week authorizing them to release the original birth certificate to his attorney, Judith Corley. She traveled to Honolulu and got two certified copies of it this week.
Loretta Fuddy, director of the Health Department in Hawaii, certified the authenticity of the copies in a letter to Obama and said, "We hope that issuing you these copies of your original Certificate of Live Birth will end the numerous inquiries received by the Hawaii Department of Health to produce this document. Such inquiries have been disruptive to staff operations and have strained state resources."
If Trump can be persuaded the birth certificate is the real thing, he indicated he will have a new cause: getting Obama to release his college records.
"The word is, according to what I've read, was that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental. He then gets to Columbia. He then gets to Harvard. I heard at Columbia, he wasn't a very good student and then gets to Harvard. … Why doesn't he release his Occidental records?"
Bill Adair is the Times Washington bureau chief and the editor of PolitiFact.com. He can be reached at [email protected]