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Trump gives tepid answer on birtherism; says he supports stop-and-frisk

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, in Toledo, Ohio. 

Evan Vucci, AP

Last Updated Sep 22, 2016 3:32 AM EDT

DAYTON, Ohio – It took five days for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to answer a question about birtherism after tepidly admitting that President Obama was born in the United States. This came five years after he led a movement promoting a conspiracy theory that the United States’ first African-American president was not born in the U.S., and it continued even after the president produced his long-form birth certificate. 

“Well, I just wanted to get on with, you know, we wanted to get on with the campaign,” Trump said, when asked by WSYX in Ohio why he changed his mind last week.  “And a lot of people were asking me questions. And we want to talk about jobs. We want to talk about the military. We want to talk about ISIS and how to get rid of ISIS. We want to really talk about bringing jobs back to this area because you’ve been decimated, so we really just wanted to get back on the subject of jobs, military, taking care of our vets, etc.”

Last week, Trump held a bizarre event at his new hotel in Washington. He uttered 270 words promoting the hotel – which is just a few blocks from the White House – and a mere 67 on birtherism, in which he took credit for getting Barack Obama to release his birth certificate, and then tried to blame his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, for starting the movement that he had led. He then quickly left. For days after, he only answered questions from friendly interviewers who did not question him about the change of heart on Mr. Obama’s place of birth.

On Wednesday, however, the topic came up in an interview by Columbus TV station WSYX, when he was asked, “After all the years where you’ve expressed some doubt, what changed?”

Trump’s answer, in many ways, gave his skeptics fuel: that he finally admitted Mr. Obama was born in this country because it was politically expedient, perhaps even necessary, because the issue was getting in the way of his message. He did not express regret. He did not apologize. He did not even say that he was wrong. He just said he wanted to move on.

Clinton campaign spokesperson Jesse Ferguson issued a statement saying, “After spending 5 years championing a conspiracy theory to undermine our first African American President, Donald Trump hasn’t actually changed his mind. He only gave his 36 second press statement last week to try to change the subject – and it didn’t work.”

One of Trump’s most prominent supporters, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, expressed doubt that Trump believed that Mr. Obama was born in this country.

“If he says the president was born here, maybe he has information I don’t have,” Arpaio said to Politico. “He didn’t say the document was legitimate. He didn’t go that route.”

Arpaio went on to tell Politico that the investigation into Mr. Obama’s birth certificate was ongoing. He had previously spoken at the Republican convention and often introduces Trump at Arizona rallies.

Birtherism is the core reason why Trump’s support among the African-American community is minimal, even while Trump has been claiming to try and court blacks – albeit in front of mostly white audiences.

Trump’s first campaign event of the day on Wednesday was in Cleveland at the New Spirit Revival Center, a church headed by one of his most prominent African-American supporters, Pastor Darrell Scott. Scott is a mainstay on cable news panels as a pundit offering a full-throated defense of the Republican nominee. Trump was flanked on stage by other prominent African-American supporters: former presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and his wife Candy. Omarosa Manigault, the former “Apprentice” contestant, and now in charge of African-American outreach for Trump’s campaign.

Causing a stir in the room was one other famous African-American supporter of Trump’s: Boxing promoter Don King. His outfit was literally sparkling, combined with faded denim and patches – and hair that has become part of pop culture lore. King walked on stage holding flags from Israel and the United States.

“I don’t know if you’ve been watching but the poll numbers are going like a rocket ship,” Trump said jubilantly.

Trump has been offering caustic messages to the African-American community imploring them to vote for him. His poll numbers have been dismal among blacks; in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out Wednesday, in a two-way race with Clinton, Trump only pulled in 7 percent of support.

On Tuesday, Trump said the African-American community had never been in worse shape “ever, ever, ever,” in Kenansville, North Carolina, a town named for a slave owner’s family. He has often compared inner city conditions unfavorably to war-torn countries such as Afghanistan. He did so again on Wednesday multiple times. It has become a common part of Trump’s stump speech to say that the African-American community lives in abject poverty with no jobs and minimal education.

“I go down the list, and we talk about the incredible crime, incredible,” Trump said. “Chicago I think, has had 3,000 shootings – as an example from just the beginning of the year. Three thousand! And thousands of people are being killed. It’s very horrible. But I talked about the crime. I talked about the lack of education, the bad schools, and I talked about jobs. The jobs are just so bad… And then one day, I said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ I mean, what do you have to lose? I’m gonna fix it. What do you have to lose? And somehow, that resonated. Some people didn’t like it. But I said, ‘What difference does it make?’”  

If Trump’s comments about birtherism complicate his relationship with the black community, so might his position on the controversial stop-and-frisk program in New York City. In a town hall with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity taped in Cleveland on Wednesday, Trump proposed expanding the program nationally.

“I would do stop-and-frisk,” Trump told an audience member when asked how he would stop black-on-black crime.  “I think you have to.  We did it in New York, it worked incredibly well.  And you have to be proactive and, you know, you really help people sort of change their mind automatically.  You understand.  You have to have – in my opinion, I see what’s going on here, I see what’s going on in Chicago, I think stop-and-frisk, in New York City, it was so incredible, the way it worked.  Now, we had a very good mayor.  But New York City was incredible the way that worked.  So I think that would be one step you could do.”

The program was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 by a New York federal judge and the newly-elected New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, dropped the appeal.  It is a particularly sore subject for many African-Americans in New York City, as much of the data shows that they were disproportionally targeted by New York City police officers. This did not seem to concern Trump, in spite of his recent attempts to gain minority support. In another part of the town hall, Trump credited stop-and-frisk with making New York City among the safest large cities in the world.

King campaigning with Trump brought another odd spectacle to an already non-traditional presidential run and provided the rare sight of Trump being upstaged at his own event. King introduced Trump in Cleveland. King accidentally said the n-word in a church.  He said that it was “the white woman” who should be considered “the left-outs.”

“The white woman and the slave, the people of color, when the system was created, they did not give her,” King said. “The first will be last and the last will be first. The white woman did not have the rights and she still don’t have the rights and people of color don’t have their rights. Those are the left-outs.”

When King accidentally said a racial expletive, Trump could be seen grinning behind him on stage.  He also joined Trump onstage at Hannity’s town hall. King would refer to “white women” as being left out throughout the day, including at Hannity’s town hall and later on in Toledo, Ohio, where Trump held another campaign event.

Trump was also joined in Toledo by King and former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight – someone whom Trump speaks glowingly of on the trail. Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence also campaigned with Trump on Wednesday, but if King and Knight were more Lennon and McCartney, Pence seemed to be the Ringo Starr of the group, attracting little notice. 

It was quite the opening act for Trump in Toledo. First, came King (“You must recognize that Trump is a spirit. He’s a spirit of America who says “’Yes, I can!’ when everyone says ‘No, you can’t!’”). Then came Pence, followed by Knight (“There is nobody that I have met in my lifetime, that has a better grasp of how to correct mistakes...”), and finally, Trump himself, who largely stayed on his recent message.

“To the African-American community, I say vote for Donald J. Trump,” Trump said. “I will fix it.  And I say, honestly, what do you have to lose? Not gonna get any worse. It’s terrible. The crime, the bad education, the no jobs. What do you have to lose?”