In March of 2011, Donald Trump made his first public statement questioning President Barack Obama’s birthplace, telling ABC’s “Good Morning America” he had “just a little” doubt that Obama was born in Hawaii. Trump would spend the next several months stoking this racist lie, which originated in the dimmest corners of the internet and flourished on World Net Daily, a far less funny Infowars.
Trump wasn’t the first public figure to question Obama’s citizenship — Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich were among many high-profile Republicans to “just ask questions” — but he was the most committed. And then in August of 2011, four months after Obama released his long-form birth certificate, a jowly sheriff from Arizona with a national profile as a hard-ass sadist announced plans to investigate the document.
Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio would assign a five-man “Cold Case Posse” to probe the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate, he told Jerome Corsi, the former World Net Daily columnist and Ur-birther. “When I get allegations brought to me by the citizens of Maricopa County, I look into the allegations, just like I am doing here,” he said at the time.
Six months later, Arpaio announced at a press conference that the long-form birth certificate was a “computer-generated forgery.” That’s when Trump took notice. Within a couple weeks of Arpaio’s announcement, Trump had printed out an Associated Press article about the charade and handwritten a note to the sheriff. It read:
Great going—you are the only one with the guts to do this—keep up the good fight.
Four months later, Arpaio’s team scheduled a press conference to elaborate on their findings and distract from the racial-profiling case against his agency that was about to begin. There, Arpaio’s lead investigator explained why the birth certificate was a fraud, using meaningless circumstantial evidence that any moron could see was worthless.
Trump loved it. In the next several days he tweeted congratulations to Arpaio and went on Fox News to talk to Sean Hannity about the sheriff’s important work.
The two bronze coots reconnected again in July of 2015, a month after Trump launched his campaign for president, at a campaign rally in Phoenix. Serving as Trump’s warm-up act, Arpaio reminded the crowd of the history he and the candidate shared. They weren’t only aligned on Obama’s illegitimacy, Arpaio said. Both were also willing to do whatever it took to take on “the illegal immigration problem,” including breaking the law.
In December, Trump had Arpaio back at a rally in Mesa, Arizona, where the sheriff once again brought up the “birth certificate investigation, which is still going on.”
Trump, who was evading questions about the issue at the time, had no problem with Arapio reminding people of the conspiracy theory that started his political career. In January, when Arpaio gave his official endorsement, Trump said, “I have great respect for Sheriff Arpaio. We must restore law and order on the border and respect the men and women of our police forces. I thank him for his support of my policies and candidacy for president.” The 85-year-old would later speak at the Republican National Convention and briefly find himself mentioned as a potential cabinet member.
Given all that rich history, it was little surprise then when rumors began swirling that Trump might pardon Arpaio during a rally in Phoenix Tuesday. For the few years that they wore tin-foil hats together, the sheriff displayed the two qualities Trump values most: loyalty and the ability to tell absurd lies with a straight face. Trump also knows how angry liberals would be if he pardoned a birther lawman reviled for his treatment of prisoners and immigrants. And Trump is nothing if not a troll.
Trump stopped short of pardoning Tuesday, but he did suggest that it’s coming. And in what one can only assume was a nod to the man who joined him in a dogged pursuit of delegitimizing the first black president, he even gave a shout-out to Kenya. Trump may not be talking about Obama’s birth certificate anymore, but he’s clearly still thinking about it.