Reince Priebus on John Lewis: You didn't see Republicans questioning the legitimacy of Obama's victory in 2008

Since his new boss is the most famous Birther on the planet, you might have thought Reince’s spin on Lewis would have been more savvy. “Donald Trump isn’t going to let potshots taken by the other party stop him from making America great again. John Lewis can say whatever he wants; we’re willing to work with him or anyone else who wants to improve the lives of the American people.” Something like that. Instead he resorts to treating questions about a president’s legitimacy as dirty pool, and predictably has no real response when Stephanopoulos throws the birth-certificate stuff in his face. Birtherism, after all, made Trump as a political force in 2011. Questioning Obama’s legitimacy was the first and maybe still defining expression of his “political incorrectness.” Probably the only reason Mitt Romney agreed to appear with him in 2012 and accept his endorsement is because he feared that snubbing the Birther-in-chief would piss off the populist right, who were already suspicious of Romney’s right-wing cred. For some, only a RINO who’s unwilling to fight with every weapon available would concede the fact of Obama’s Hawaiian birthplace.

And it’s not just Trump. Doubting Obama’s natural-born status has been a mainstream position within the broader GOP for years. NBC re-polled the question just last summer:

A first look reveals significant and surprising differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to their beliefs about Obama’s birthplace.

While more than eight in 10 Democrats agreed with the claim, far more Republicans disagreed with the statement (41 percent) than agreed with it (27 percent). An additional 31 percent of Republicans expressed some doubts about whether Obama is a native U.S. citizen (i.e. indicating that they neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement). Only slightly more than one in four Republican voters agreed that the president was born in the United States…

In fact, the distributions are statistically indistinguishable: 40 percent of knowledgeable Republicans disagree that Obama was born in the U.S. compared to 42 percent of lower knowledge Republicans. A greater factual understanding of the political system does not diminish Republicans’ doubts about Obama’s birthplace.

Those are the numbers among Republicans generally. In a PPP poll taken last May specifically among Republicans with a favorable opinion of Trump, 59 percent thought Obama had been born outside the United States. Reince saying that “Republicans” didn’t question the legitimacy of Obama’s victory in 2008 is only true if you take him to mean Republican leaders. Among the wider party, including and especially the Republican president-elect, his legitimacy’s been questioned since basically day one.

The best Priebus can do here to try to get out of that corner is to insist that Trump gave up on believing the Birther stuff years ago. That’s not just a lie but a bad lie, enough so that Stephanopoulos was able to fact-check him about it on the spot. The whole reason Trump’s press conference last September about Obama’s birth certificate was big news was because he’d never once said to that point that he thought O was born in the United States. He tweeted his skepticism (and retweeted his fans’ skepticism) about the subject well into Obama’s second term, in fact:

In 2015, he told Megyn Kelly of O’s birth certificate, “I’m not exactly sure what he gave but he gave something called a birth certificate. I don’t know if it was or not.” As late as early 2016, he told Wolf Blitzer “Who knows?” when asked about the birth certificate before saying, “I have my own theory on Obama. Someday I’ll write a book.” Again, if you’re Reince, why stick with spin that you know can easily be debunked? When you’re asked about questioning the legitimacy of presidents, protect your boss by saying something stoic like, “Well, that’s become a bipartisan tradition now. George W. Bush’s legitimacy was questioned unfairly in 2000 because he lost the popular vote and again in 2004 because of Democratic conspiracy theories about voting in Ohio. Even Bill Clinton’s legitimacy was questioned by some because he never won a majority of the popular vote.” That answer wouldn’t have satisfied everyone, but at least they wouldn’t have made him and Trump guilty of obvious hypocrisy.

By the way, it’s not just Obama’s birthplace that’s led righties to question his legitimacy as president. Another PPP poll taken in late 2009 asked people if they thought ACORN had stolen the election for O. Fifty-two percent of Republicans said yes.

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