Do Trump's assertions about Obama's birthplace add up?

FactCheck.org tests Trump's claims about where Obama was born

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Donald Trump

Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press

If Donald Trump worked for us, we’d have to say: "Donald, you’re fired — for incompetence." The successful developer and TV celebrity says he’d make a good president, and maybe he would — we take no stand either way about that. But when it comes to getting facts straight, he fouls up again and again on the basics of President Barack Obama’s birth. As a rookie reporter, he just wouldn’t make it.

  • He claims the president’s grandmother says Obama was born in Kenya. In fact, the recording to which he refers shows Sarah Obama repeatedly saying through a translator: "He was born in America."
  • He claims that no hospital in Hawaii has a record of Obama’s birth. Hospital records are confidential under federal law, but Honolulu’s Kapi’olani Medical Center has published a letter from Obama calling it "the place of my birth," thus publicly confirming it as his birthplace.
  • He insists that the official "Certification of Live Birth" that Obama produced in 2008 is "not a birth certificate."  That’s wrong. The U.S. Department of State uses "birth certificate" as a generic term to include the official Hawaii document, which satisfies legal requirements for proving citizenship and obtaining a passport.
  • He claims that there’s no signature or certification number on the document released by Obama. Wrong again. Photos of the document, which we posted in 2008, clearly show those details.
  • He says newspaper announcements of Obama’s birth that appeared in Hawaii newspapers in 1961 "probably" were placed there fraudulently by his now-deceased American grandparents. Actually, a state health department official and a former managing editor of one of the newspapers said the information came straight from the state health department.
  • He claims "nobody knew" Obama when he was growing up and "nobody ever comes forward" who knew him as a child. "If I ever decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten," Trump said. Well, two retired kindergarten teachers in a 2009 news story fondly recall teaching a young Barack Obama.

The evidence that Obama was born in the U.S.A. is so overwhelming that we haven’t had much to say lately about the sort of bogus claims that Trump repeats. Hawaii’s top official in charge of vital records stated long ago, for example, that the confidential records underlying Obama’s official birth certificate show that he was born in Hawaii and is "a natural born American citizen."

But when a leading prospect for the Republican presidential nomination embraces and repeats these spurious claims and groundless conspiracy theories on national television, we are forced to wade into this swamp once again. For details of where Trump goes wrong, and full documentation of the facts, please read on to our Analysis section.

Analysis

Trump made several incorrect statements of fact in an April 7 appearance on NBC’s "Today Show," and later in a call-in to MSNBC’s "Morning Joe." In each instance he echoed claims that are often repeated by those who wish to believe Obama is not a natural-born American citizen and thus not qualified under the Constitution to be president.

The proof of Obama’s citizenship has long been apparent to us and, we think, to any reasonable person with a mind open to evidence, regardless of his or her party. The conservative National Review agreed as long ago as July 2009, when it wrote that "a few misguided souls among the Right" had bought into the sort of "foolishness" that Trump now embraces. "Like Bruce Springsteen, he [Obama] has a lot of bad political ideas; but he was born in the U.S.A.," the Review’s editors said.

The proof is not just the official birth certificate issued by the state of Hawaii, and made public by the Obama campaign in 2008. As we wrote when we published detailed photographs of that document in our "Born in the U.S.A." article, that document constitutes legal proof of citizenship sufficient to meet all U.S. Department of State requirements for issuance of a passport.

There also were public announcements of Obama’s birth published in Hawaii newspapers shortly after his birth in 1961 (placed there not by his family, as Trump suggests, but based on official state records.) And the state’s top vital records official, Dr. Chiyome Leinaala Fukino, director of the Hawaii Department of Health, issued a statement in 2009 stating that she had "seen the original vital records maintained on file" and that those records, which are confidential under state law, verify that "Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawai‘i and is a natural-born American citizen."

Trump now recycles some of the misguided theories and false claims that have continued to circulate, mostly by viral e-mail and on some websites. We’ll start with the most dramatic claim — which was first raised in 2008 and quickly discredited.

What Obama’s Kenyan Grandmother Really Said

Donald Trump, NBC: His grandmother in Kenya says he was born in Kenya and witnessed the birth, okay?

Trump, MSNBC: His grandmother in Kenya, said "Oh no, he was born in Kenya and I was there and I witnessed the birth."

That claim is years old, and untrue. It was first raised publicly Oct. 30, 2008 in a court filing by Philip Berg, whose lawsuit alleging that Obama was born in Kenya had just been thrown out of federal court in Philadelphia. In a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals, Berg sought an "emergency" court order to halt the presidential election, and attached as "Exhibit A" an affidavit from Ron McRae, a pastor from Johnstown, Pa., who describes himself as the presiding bishop of the "Anabaptists Churches of North America." (The appeal also was denied).

In the affidavit, McRae makes a number of statements, including a claim that Obama had campaigned "actively" for Raila Odinga to be president of Kenya in 2007.  In fact, Obama was in Kenya in August, 2006, nearly a year and a half before the Kenyan presidential election held in December, 2007.That alone is reason to question McRae’s credibility.

But McRae goes on to claim that — just two weeks earlier — Obama’s paternal grandmother Sarah Obama, had admitted to him during a transatlantic telephone interview that she was present at the birth of her grandson Barack Obama — in Kenya. Berg filed only a partial, edited transcript of the call, which was arranged by one of McRae’s fellow missionaries. Even that incomplete record shows that it was McRae — not Sarah Obama — who said the future president was born in Kenya. McRae’s leading questions were relayed to her through a translator, since she spoke in her native Luo language, not English. Later, the part of the conversation that Berg omitted was revealed. And it makes clear that Sarah Obama misunderstood McRae at first, and tried repeatedly to correct McRae’s misunderstanding, saying emphatically: "He was born in America!"

Berg Transcript

Ron McRae: Amen. I am so thankful. Could I ask her, uh, about his, uh, his actual birthplace? I would like to see hi[s] actual birthplace when I, when I come to Kenya in December. Uh, was she present when he was, was she present when he was born in Kenya?.

Translator: Yes. She says, “Yes she was! She was present when Obama was born.”

McRae: Okay.

The Berg transcript ends here. But when the full recording later came to light it showed that this is what followed immediately:

What Berg Left Out

McRae: Okay, uh, when I come in December I would like to go by the, the place, the hospital where he is born. Uh, could you tell me where he was born? Was he born in Mombasa? (Long pause) . . .

Translator: No, no — what? . . .  No! Obama was not born in Mombasa. He was born in America.

McRae: Wh-whereabouts, whereabouts was he born? I, I thought he was born in Kenya.

Translator: No he was born in America, not in Mombasa.

McRae: OK. Do you know whereabouts he was born?

Translator: Huh?

McRae: Do you know where he was born? I thought he was born in Kenya. I was gonna go by and see where he was born. . . .

Translator: Sir, she says he was born in Hawaii.

McRae: OK.

Translator: Yeah, in 1960 this was Hawaii, where his father, his father was also marrying there. This was Hawaii.

McRae: OK. . . . I thought you said she was present. Was she, was, was she, was she able to see him being, being born in, in Hawaii? . . .

Translator: No, no! The, the woman was not present. She was uh not, a what — you see, she was here in Kenya, and Obama was born in America. That is, that’s obvious.

Note that  Berg did not file an audio recording of McRae’s call with the court. It first appeared Nov. 1, 2008 on the "America’s Right" website of Jeff Schreiber, who describes himself on his site as being "on the right side of the traditional political spectrum." He wrote that he was opposed to Obama’s election because of the candidate’s "radical ideology," and was "open to the idea that Barack Obama has not been entirely truthful" about his background. Yet  Schreiber posted a "WARNING — Please Read" notice at the top of his story, saying of Berg’s account:  "I don’t particularly think that it smells right."

We recently interviewed Schreiber and asked how he obtained the tape. "I got it from McRae himself," he said. He said he remains skeptical of the tape. "We don’t know that the woman is who they say she is." He had no reason to believe, however, that McRae gave him anything but a "full and complete" audio file of the interview.

Told that Trump cites the tape as evidence Obama was born in Kenya, McRae asked if we had Trump’s phone number so he could call him and talk to him. What would he tell Trump?

Schreiber, April 8: I’d tell him, well, that he needs to be careful when it comes to sourcing of information. If someone came to him with a rock solid investment, you’d think he would look into it. It’s the same thing. If he is going to go on the record and start claiming things he needs to make sure the source is right. I would caution him on his proper role in the presidential primary.

Worth noting is that Sarah Obama granted a number of interviews to reporters, and not one of them has quoted her as claiming the president was born in Kenya. Quite the contrary. A reporter for an Indianapolis television station filed this story shortly after Obama was elected in November, 2008. And in it Sarah Obama tells (again, through translators) of her grandson’s first visit to Kenya — when he was 25 years old.

Birth Certificate

Trump also makes false claims about the document Obama produced in 2008, claiming that it is not a birth certificate and has no signature or serial number:

Trump, NBC: He doesn’t have a birth certificate or he hasn’t shown it. He has what’s called certificate of live birth. That’s something that’s easy to get. … it’s not the equivalent. …  A certificate of live birth is not even signed by anybody. I saw his. I read it very carefully. It doesn’t have a serial number, doesn’t have a signature. there’s not even a signature.

Trump is wrong. He just hasn’t done his homework.

It’s true that the rather poor image that the Obama campaign at first made public showed only one side of the document (the official signature was on the reverse) and the campaign unaccountably obliterated the number, for reasons never fully explained. But when we pressed the campaign for a better image, we were allowed to come to campaign headquarters and photograph it for ourselves, which we did. Had Trump looked at our 2008 article, he would see the signature stamp of Alvin Onaka, certifying that the document is "a true copy or abstract of the record on file," issued to Obama June 7, 2007 as he was preparing to run for president.

Furthermore, the serial number (actually a "certificate" number) shows quite clearly in our photos. The number is 151 1961 – 010641, for whatever that’s worth.

Trump is also mistaken about what legally qualifies as a "birth certificate," which is actually a broad generic term with no specific legal meaning. The U.S. Department of State uses the term "certified birth certificate" to refer to exactly what Obama produced, which Hawaii calls a "Certification of Live Birth." The State Department accepts a state-certified photocopy of a hospital-generated document, as was commonly used in the past.

But Hawaii, like many other states, now uses computer-printed documents instead, and Hawaii’s form also meets State Department standards for establishing citizenship.

U.S. Department of State: A certified birth certificate has a registrar’s raised, embossed, impressed or multicolored seal, registrar’s signature, and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar’s office, which must be within 1 year of your birth

We were amused to see Trump make a show recently of producing what he said was his own "birth certificate," which wasn’t an official document and wouldn’t  qualify him for a passport. “It took me one hour to get my birth certificate," he told the conservative-leaning news site Newsmax. "It’s inconceivable that, after four years of questioning, the president still hasn’t produced his birth certificate."

Trump’s "birth certificate" was actually an unofficial "Certificate of Birth" generated by Jamaica Hospital Medical Center (in Queens, N.Y. — not the island nation) stating that Trump was born there June 14, 1946. But because it was not "issued by the city, county or state" as required by the State Department, it does not constitute legal proof of citizenship sufficient to obtain a passport. When confronted with these facts, Trump later coughed up what he said was his official birth record issued by New York City’s Bureau of Records and Statistics. It is a certified photocopy of a "Certificate of Birth" signed by a physician. This one does appear to meet State Department requirements. And so does Obama’s.

Hospital Hooey

Trump also fouled up doubly by claiming that the hospital where he was born still has detailed records of his birth, and also that "nobody knows" at which hospital Obama was born. He’s wrong on both counts.

Trump, MSNBC: The hospital [in Hawaii] has not only no birth certificate, or if they have it they should produce it, or maybe there is something on it, who knows, but they have no records that he was there. The family is fighting over which hospital in Hawaii he was born in, nobody knows which hospital, they say no it’s this one, no it’s that one. The family in Hawaii is fighting.

A couple of other things, when I was born in Jamaica hospital in Queens, when I was born there are records saying how much my parents paid for the doctor, who the doctor was, what room number I was born in, all of these things that I have. There is not one record in any hospital in Hawaii that Barack Hussein Obama was born there.

In fact, Kapi’olani Medical Center in Honolulu is where Obama was born. It’s true that his Hawaiian birth certificate doesn’t name the hospital. It’s also true that at least one news story (which was later corrected) incorrectly reported a different hospital as the birthplace, allowing Obama’s foes to engage in unfounded speculation that family members disagreed. (We’ve seen zero evidence of such a family disagreement.)

It is also true that Kapi’olani can’t legally release individually identifiable health information without that person’s permission because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. But Obama referred to Kapi’olani as "the place of my birth" in a letter he sent as part of the hospital’s 100th anniversary in 2009. And the hospital not only published the letter in its magazine (see page 6), but then-Congressman Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who is now governor of the state, proudly read the letter aloud at the hospital’s anniversary gala. 

We also found that Trump was just blowing hot air when he claimed that Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queenshas detailed records of his birth, including "how much my parents paid for the doctor." Our researcher Michael Morse asked a hospital spokesman about that. What he was told is that any records of a birth from that long ago were probably destroyed many years ago, and even if they still existed the hospital could not release them to outsiders because of HIPAA. The hospital’s policy is to retain records of any child until age 21.

Michael Hinck, Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, spokesman: It’s unlikely that the information will still exist.

And what about details such as the doctor who delivered Trump and the room number where he and his mother stayed? Even if that information still existed, Hinck said, "We wouldn’t be able to give any details. And that’s according to HIPAA."

And the same applies to other hospitals, including Kapi’olani where Obama was born.

Bogus Birth Announcement?

On MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," Trump also claimed without any evidence that Obama’s grandparents may have placed the birth announcements that appeared Aug. 13, 1961 in the Honolulu Advertiser and Aug. 14, 1961 in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Trump speculated that the grandparents "put the ads in" the papers "because they wanted him to become a United States citizen."

Trump, April 7: Now, let me just go to the final point. The final point on the birther. The final point is the newspaper. Well, guess what? His grandparents probably put in a thing because everybody wanted to become a United States citizen, more so than today to be honest with you, because they were more proud in those days. But for purposes of hospitalization and welfare, you want to become an American citizen. So, the grandparents living in Honolulu, living in Hawaii, probably put it in. It’s a very simply explanation.

It’s also very simple to make a false claim.

In a 2009 story, the Advertiser noted that the announcement read exactly the same in the competing newspapers: "Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama, 6085 Kalanianaole Hwy., son, Aug. 4." That’s because, it said, the information came directly from the health department, citing department spokeswoman Janice Okubo.

Advertiser, July 28, 2009: Such vital statistics, however, were not sent to the newspapers by the general public but by the Health Department, which received the information directly from hospitals, Okubo said. Birth announcements from the public ran elsewhere in both papers and usually included information such as the newborn’s name, weight and time of birth.

Okubo’s statement is further supported by the Advertiser headline ("Births, Marriages, Deaths)" and subhead ("Health Bureau Statistics"). The Star-Bulletin headline reads, "Marriage Applications Births–Deaths."

In a Nov. 9, 2008 story in the Advertiser, the Star-Bulletin’s former managing editor Dave Shapiro discussed the paper’s policy for accepting birth announcements.

Advertiser, Nov. 9, 2008: Advertiser columnist and former Star-Bulletin managing editor Dave Shapiro was not at either paper in 1961, but he remembers how the birth notices process worked years later when both papers were jointly operated by the Hawaii Newspaper Agency — which no longer exists. "Those were listings that came over from the state Department of Health," he said. "They would send the same thing to both papers."

This is not empirical evidence. But Trump has no evidence and no knowledge of the process for publishing birth announcements.

‘Kindergarten’ Stuff

Trump kicked off his Obama-isn’t-a-citizen campaign March 17 on ABC’s "Good Morning America" when he admitted to "just a little" doubt about the president’s birth. That doubt, he now says, has grown. On ABC, Trump said he found it "very strange" that "nobody knew him" when Obama was growing up as a small boy in Hawaii.

Trump, ABC: The reason that I have a little doubt — just a little — is because he grew up and nobody knew him. When you interview people — if I ever got the nomination, if I ever decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten, they’ll remember me. Nobody ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It’s very strange. The whole thing is very strange."

That’s false. The fact is that the Maui News interviewed two retired kindergarten teachers, Aimee Yatsushiro and Katherine Nakamoto, who recalled a chubby little 5-year-old Barack Obama in their kindergarten class.

Maui News, Jan. 21, 2009: Yatsushiro, a retired teacher from Kahului, served as a student teacher from September to December 1966 at Noelani Elementary School on Oahu. Her supervising teacher was Kazuko Sakai, the primary educator for about 25 students in a kindergarten class that included a boy named Barack "Barry" Obama.

"He was a cute, likable, heavy build-child," Yatsushiro recalled. "I could visualize Barry smiling, dressed in his long-sleeved, white shirt tucked into his brown Bermuda shorts, and wearing laced shoes."

Nakamoto, also a retired teacher now living in Wailuku, coincidentally was assigned to the same kindergarten class, only this time from January to June of 1967. Nakamoto said she never used a nickname for the student. "We called him Barack. . . . He was very well mannered, respectful, confident and independent."

CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux confronted Trump with taped interviews of people who recall a young Obama as a child in Hawaii. In response, Trump falsely denied that he ever said nobody remembers Obama as a child.

Trump, April 7: Look, I didn’t say that. You have to be born in the country. If he was three years old, or two years old, or one year old and people remember him — that’s irrelevant.

We agree it’s irrelevant. The fact is, though, that Trump said it.

We say again . . .

As we said at the outset, we take no stand either way on whether Trump deserves to be nominated or elected president. If he has doubts about Obama’s birth, he’s entitled to them — as is anybody else. And we would never presume to advise Republicans on whom to choose as their nominee, or to advise any voter whom to send to the White House. Our job is simply to assess evidence and call out falsehoods and factual mistakes when we find them.

We will permit ourselves this observation. Back in 2008 we said this about the many loopy theories and  lawsuits claiming that Obama was born in Kenya, or somewhere other than the U.S.A:

FactCheck.org, Nov. 1, 2008: Of all the nutty rumors, baseless conspiracy theories and sheer disinformation that we’ve dealt with at FactCheck.org during campaign 2008, perhaps the goofiest is the claim that Barack Obama is not a “natural-born citizen” and therefore not eligible to be president under the constitution.

We’ve seen no evidence that would change our conclusion in the nearly two and a half years since then.

Developments have at times been bizarre. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered one lawyer to pay a $20,000 fine for a "frivolous" lawsuit raising some of the same claims Trump now embraces. The same lawyer introduced in court a birth certificate supposedly showing Obama was born in Mombasa — a document quickly revealed as a forgery. Many who embrace Trump’s theories were left red-faced by a transparent April Fool’s Day hoax in 2009.

So — love Trump or hate him. That’s your choice. All we’re saying is that his factual assertions about Obama’s birth would get him fired from any reputable news organization. Or at least, it would get him fired here.

For additional multimedia, go to www.factcheck.org. FactCheck is a fact-checking journalism project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

–  by Brooks Jackson and Eugene Kiely, with Michael Morse