early and often

Following Trump’s Lead, Republicans Turn Birtherism Weapon on Themselves

Budget Battle
“Come on, man, you were born in Panama.” Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Corbis

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz repeated what’s become a familiar pattern on Tuesday: Trump tried to derail his closest rival by saying something completely unhinged, and Cruz deflected by tweeting a pop-culture reference. This time Trump dusted off his old birther accusation, swapping in the Texas senator for President Obama, and Canada for Kenya. “A lot of people are talking about it and I know that even some states are looking at it very strongly, the fact that he was born in Canada and he has had a double passport,” Trump told the Washington Post.

The question seemed to amuse White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. He said at Wednesday’s press briefing that it would be “quite ironic” if Republican primary voters nominated “somebody who actually wasn’t born in the United States and only 18 months ago renounced his Canadian citizenship.”

Other Obama-administration alums agreed. 

Ann Coulter took the birther bait:

Only to be mocked because she, like Trump, has previously said Cruz was eligible to run.

The matter should have ended there, but when asked about Cruz during an interview on the radio show Kilmeade & Friends, Rand Paul quipped, “You know, I think without question he is qualified and would make the cut to be prime minister of Canada. Absolutely without question, he is qualified and he meets the qualifications.”

As a trolling enthusiast, there’s no way Paul can resist joking about a rival being a secret Canadian.

But when pressed, the Kentucky senator suggested Trump’s claim should be seriously considered. “You know, I’m not an expert on the natural-born clause in the Constitution and people have various opinions,” Paul said. “Some people believe it means you need to be born here, some people believe it means you can be born in another country as long as your parents are citizens.”

Paul added that there’s a double standard because people went after Obama’s eligibility “hot and heavy,” but “there hasn’t been really the same outrage at all for someone who actually is born in another country.”

And if there was any hope that this insignificant issue would vanish on Thursday, cowed by its own stupidity, Trump sent off a tweet to try to keep distracting people for as long as possible. 

The Tea Party Express told everyone to stop already and focus on the issues again. The group’s co-founder said in a statement, according to the Hill, that “Bogus attacks and insinuations do nothing to advance conservatism and only distract from the important, issue-based contrasts that should be at the forefront.”

There hasn’t been much outrage because there’s widespread agreement among legal scholars that Cruz is eligible to run for president. The framers did not spell out the exact definition of the Constitution’s requirement that the president be a “natural born citizen,” but it’s commonly understood to mean someone who was a U.S. citizen at birth, as opposed to someone who becomes a naturalized citizen later in life.

A report published by the Congressional Research Service in 2008 supported that definition, as did a recent Harvard Law Review op-ed in which two former solicitor generals, one Democrat and one Republican, looked at British common law and the actions of the First Congress. “Both confirm that the original meaning of the phrase ‘natural born Citizen’ includes persons born abroad who are citizens from birth based on the citizenship of a parent,” they wrote. That would include Cruz, who was born in Calgary, Canada, to an American mother, and has thus always been an American citizen.

Still, several presidential candidates have had their citizenship questioned, including George Romney (father of Mitt), Barry Goldwater, and John McCain. One might think that would make the Arizona senator sympathetic to Cruz (particularly after Trump questioned his war-hero status), but he actually fanned the flames in a radio interview on Wednesday. “I don’t know the answer to that,” McCain said on the Chris Merrill Show when asked about Cruz’s eligibility.

McCain noted that he was born in Panama Canal Zone, a U.S. military base, but said, “that’s different from being born on foreign soil.” He added, “I am not a Constitutional scholar on that, but I think it’s worth looking into. I don’t think it’s illegitimate to look into it.” McCain said we may need the Supreme Court to address the matter, but because the issue is mostly settled, the court has refused to take up legal challenges on the meaning of “natural born citizen” — most recently, as PolitiFact notes, when such cases were filed against McCain in 2008.

McCain’s stance makes a bit more sense when you recall that he really hates Cruz, but he and the rest of the Republican establishment should probably think twice before adding legitimacy to Trump’s accusations. Marco Rubio, who may be their best shot at nominating someone who isn’t Trump or Cruz, was born in Miami, but he’s been the subject of birther conspiracy theories for years.

Orly Taitz, one of the most fervent of the Obama birthers, does not think Cruz or Rubio are natural-born citizens.

She told U.S. News & World Report that if the courts don’t deal with this issue soon, “anybody could run for president — it could be the son of Ayatollah Khomeini, it could be the son of the king of Saudi Arabia, it could be the son of Mullah Omar, or the son of [ISIS group leader] al-Baghdadi.”

A few Democrats have waded into the issue, perhaps forgetting the lessons of the Obama birther brouhaha. On Thursday, Minority House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about it and replied, “I do think there is a distinction between John McCain being born to a family serving our country in Panama than someone born in another country, but again, this is a constitutional issue that will be either decided or not. Whoever they choose, we will be ready to make the contrast. I wish them well in their process.”

Another Democratic representative, one who happens to be running for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat, is plunging into the debate with far more relish. Alan Grayson, best known for constantly saying controversial things, told Fox News in November, “I don’t know, the Constitution says natural-born Americans, so now we’re counting Canadians as natural-born Americans? How does that work? I’m waiting for the moment that he gets the nomination and then I will file that beautiful lawsuit saying that he’s unqualified for the job because he’s ineligible.”

He told U.S. News & World Report that he’s still thinking about that lawsuit this week. “Both the senator and others say she was born in Delaware,” Grayson said, “but there’s no record of it.”

The question has made it to far smaller war theaters than cable news and the halls of Congress; one voter in Cincinnati asked the county board of elections to decide if Cruz was eligible to be president. Tim Burke, the board’s chair and a prominent local Democrat, responded, “As much as I believe Hamilton County is the battleground county in the battleground state, I don’t think Hamilton County is in position to make that determination.”

Republicans Turn Birtherism Weapon on Themselves