Birtherism is the foundation of Trump’s political career. By asking repeated racist and delegitimizing questions about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump built the movement that would propel him to the Republican nomination in 2016. But for the past few weeks, Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani, and Kellyanne Conway, among others, have insisted that Trump is a birther no more. And over the same period of time, Trump himself was silent on the issue, claiming instead that he “doesn’t talk about” that anymore.
Setting aside the odious and racist nature of birtherism itself, it’s worth asking two questions about Trump’s decision to halfheartedly renounce it: Why now? And why draw it out for so long?
The first question is more straightforward. Trump’s position as the leader of the birther movement is an election issue, and it’s one that reporters have repeatedly asked about over the past 15 months. It’s possible that the news conference Trump is holding on Friday morning is meant to make the issue go away. But it’s more likely that there’s a bit of strategy involved. Trump’s outreach to African Americans is not really about winning the black vote—that’s not going to happen. Instead, it’s been about trying to give so-called moderate or suburban Republicans an excuse to vote for him—renouncing birtherism, in this light, is an attempt to take away an excuse for these voters not to vote for him. The race is tightening and the Trump campaign doesn’t want what they think of as “distractions” from Trump’s larger message.
Similarly, Trump and his team may simply be working to take a card out of Clinton’s deck ahead of the debates. If Clinton tries to attack him for being a “birther” he can claim to have buried the issue and try to move on. Finally, though less likely, it’s also possible that the Trump campaign has begun to see Obama’s rising popularity as a liability.
The question of why Trump has taken months to personally address his birther past—and drawn out that address for weeks—is harder to answer, however. It’s possible that this is a last resort, an acknowledgment that the issue can’t be handled by surrogates alone. But when asked about the content of his speech by Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump said, “I have to—we have to keep the suspense going, okay? So you watch.” The Trump campaign has been committed to political theater above all else, and Trump’s supposed renunciation of birtherism looks like it’s just that.