On Friday morning, the American media and ostensibly, members of the American public, found themselves in a familiar place: awaiting a “major statement” from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, carried across most of the major news networks.
After roughly 1 ½ hours of delay and a parade of Medal of Honor recipients touting his candidacy one by one on stage at his new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Trump spoke for maybe 10 seconds.
His main message was that it was not him, but his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who started the unfounded rumors that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” he said, a claim he’s repeated without evidence. “I finished it. I finished it.”
“President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” he continued. “Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
It was one of the most manipulative plays yet for a candidate who has mastered and maximized the media landscape, the American public’s anxiety over terrorism and economic inequality, and the polarized state of U.S. politics. That’s a key part of Trump’s continued and unexpected success: Recent nationwide polls put him neck–and-neck with Clinton just as the 2016 election enters its homestretch, due in no small part to his ability to keep the public’s rapt attention more than a year into his campaign.
On Thursday night, back to his political convention-defying self due to his polling comeback against Clinton, Trump reignited the “birther” controversy that vaulted the real estate magnate and former reality TV show host into the political sphere years ago by refusing to rule out that Obama had not been born in the United States.
A primary campaign advisor immediately sent out a damage-control statement saying Trump had done “a great service to the president and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised” by forcing Obama to release his birth certificate in 2011. The Trump campaign cited that move evidence that he is a “closer.”
But the media, predictably, pounced on the non-denial, and his campaign shortly after began hyping the Friday morning event at Trump’s new hotel — located halfway between the Capitol and the White House — which conveniently began its soft roll out this week.
On Friday morning Trump teased:
I am now going to the brand new Trump International, Hotel D.C. for a major statement.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2016
There is a deeper, relevant context. Trump suggesting that Obama was not born in the U.S. plays into the nativist, racist and xenophobic veins of American politics that existed before the election of the first black president in 2008, but have been sliced open by a complex convergence of, among other things, the 9/11 attacks, an increasingly polarized media landscape, decades of conflicts in the Middle East, and a growing economic inequality that has left swaths of the country behind.
It is this dynamic that Trump tapped into to great success in the Republican primary, and that motivates much of his most loyal base in the general election. And even if the intention of the media coverage was to provide that context to his comments, there is another major benefit for Trump: free advertising time.
But not just for his candidacy, though his flare for the sound byte has gotten him billions of dollars worth of gratis air time throughout the campaign. The Friday event also provided big billing for his new hotel, as evidenced by his first words.
“Nice hotel,” Trump began, to applause. “Under budget and ahead of schedule.”
According to reports, the campaign said the event would be about veterans. It is not new for candidates to wrap themselves in the flag and trot out surrogates who have served the U.S. military, given it is one of the most trusted American institutions. Both Clinton and Trump have rolled out endorsements from servicemembers and veterans to bolster their commander in chief arguments.
But Trump uniquely and skillfully combined the renewed attention to the birther controversy, with the veterans set up at his new hotel, to maximize publicity for both his business venture and his campaign.
Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Obama’s ousted chief of the Pentagon’s intelligence arm and increasingly the face of Trump’s stump speeches, introduced the GOP nominee. Trump spoke briefly, but then introduced the Medal of Honor recipients standing around him on stage to reiterate their endorsements. They slammed Clinton and Obama for “leading from behind” and touted their nominee’s strength.
Roughly 90 minutes after the event was billed to begin, Trump finally came back to the microphone for his “major statement.” News networks were visibly incensed at the apparent deception.
Clinton had spoken just before, nearby in Washington.
“There is no ‘new’ Donald Trump,” she said. “There never will be.”
Photo Credit: Mark Wilson / Staff