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Trump is spreading birtherism falsehoods again — this time about Nikki Haley

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In a Republican primary field that at one time boasted more than a dozen candidates, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump are the last ones standing. That means Trump's fire is concentrated on Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants. And Trump is using that heritage to try to undermine Haley's candidacy and stoke concern about her legitimacy for the presidency. For the record, that concern is unfounded. Haley, as the Constitution dictates, is a natural-born U.S. citizen. But this is a tactic Trump has used again and again through his political career. NPR senior editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins me now. Hey there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey.

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KELLY: So I'm going to get to the specific attacks against Haley, but let me start by taking you back to 2011. That is when...

MONTANARO: Oh, great.

KELLY: Yeah. Trump was thinking about challenging Barack Obama, and he started trying to sow doubt about whether Obama really had been born in the United States.

MONTANARO: Yeah. You're really taking me back to an oldie but a baddie here. And, you know, Trump was upset with Obama because Obama had belittled him, made fun of him during this White House Correspondents' dinner. And then when Trump was deciding about maybe he would run, he sent investigators to Hawaii to look for Obama's birth certificate, trying to say that he wasn't born there, creating all kinds of doubt, saying that he needed to release a long form birth certificate, that he'd only released a short form birth certificate and essentially was just taking what was an unusual name and othering him and saying that, because his father was born in Kenya, his mother supposedly, in Trump's view, born in Hawaii, and was just trying to create doubt about Obama, his legitimacy, and really use that to sort of fuel a political campaign, which, you know, less than a decade later, he did use to his advantage.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, and back in 2011, he managed to apply enough pressure that eventually Obama did produce that long form...

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MONTANARO: Yup.

KELLY: ...Birth certificate, right?

MONTANARO: Yeah. You know, they really didn't want to do it, right? They didn't want to release this. You know, we'd asked the White House several times, what are you guys going to do? Are you going to release this? Are you not? And it was typical for the Obama campaign and Obama White House to sort of wait a couple days until they actually then did the thing. And they did this time. They went and got it. Obama had to go to the briefing room at the White House and tried to say, OK, you guys happy now? Like, too bad.

KELLY: Can we move on? Yeah.

MONTANARO: Right. But it wasn't the case because what wound up happening with this is - and I covered the Tea Party for quite some time and during its rise - and I would go to these Tea Party town halls, and I would ask people what they thought of President Obama on tape. And people would say, well, you know, he's not too bad, but I don't like him because he wasn't born in America. He was born in Kenya. And I would take some people through their thinking on this, which they had clearly just gotten from conspiratorial right-wing websites or Fox News or whatever. And they would come up with these things, but then I would say, well, how do you explain the Honolulu Advertiser birth announcement? I said, do you think his mother said, you know, he's going to be president one day? And they're like, oh, I really can't explain that.

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KELLY: So that was then. Let's talk about now. As you listen to the way that Donald Trump is talking about Nikki Haley, what do you hear that sounds familiar, that echoes what he was saying about Obama?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, look at a couple of things that he's doing, right? He's using her middle name incorrectly and putting it in quotes, which he did on his Truth Social account - certainly very similar to the way he used to emphasize Hussein in Barack Obama's middle name. And look, it wasn't just Trump who was doing this back then. I mean, Trump today still will quote Rush Limbaugh and who - you know, the late Rush Limbaugh, the - who was, you know, this conservative talk radio star. And he would always say, Hussein, as if to say, this guy is not like you. He's not like me, and he's really not legitimate. And that's always been sort of the implication.

You know, he said - Trump has said that Haley is not qualified to be president of the United States - incorrectly - because her parents were not born in the United States. They were born in India. We should point out that Donald Trump's own mother was born in Scotland. And the Constitution obviously...

KELLY: And just to be clear...

MONTANARO: Go ahead.

KELLY: Just to be crystal clear - Nikki Haley herself, which is all that matters here - she was born in the United States.

MONTANARO: I was just going to say - the Constitution does not say that your parents need to be born in the United States. It says that you have to be a natural-born citizen. And while there's been, you know, lots of debate over what natural-born means, being born in the United States is the most clear evidence for being a natural-born citizen. But this is exactly what Trump wants. He wants people talking about this. He wants people debating it. And the implication is that Haley is not somehow natural, regular, a normal American like his voters and telling them, you know, you and me, we're regular Americans, but Haley, really, she's not.

KELLY: Just to inject here - Donald Trump uses nicknames, uses demeaning language for all kinds of people, including white people. You know, he calls Jeb Bush low-energy Jeb. Little Marco is Marco Rubio. He's got Sleepy Joe. He's got Crooked Joe for Joe Biden. How is...

MONTANARO: Ron DeSanctimonious (ph).

KELLY: There we go.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

KELLY: How is this different?

MONTANARO: Just updated. It's different because unlike these playground-style nicknames that, you know, are really meant to belittle, needle, ridicule, this is more than that. You know, this is about painting Haley, Obama, people of color, immigrants as other, as not true Americans when lots of people, frankly, would argue that that's the beauty of the American story. It's how people come from all over the world to escape difficult situations, whether it's poverty or danger or political persecution, and can gather under one flag of freedom. But Trump's M.O., his playbook, is to make that very characteristic something that's antithetical to being a true American, which Trump seems to identify as anyone who's not loyal to him.

KELLY: Does it work? Does this tactic work?

MONTANARO: Well, it certainly appeals to a certain part of his base. A lot of this stems from the false grievance that he and - that he's mined with his voters. You know, many working-class whites upset with their lot in life looking to blame someone, Trump has given them someone to blame. And immigrants are a ripe group of people who, not just Trump, but it's, you know, right-wing conservative media that's echoed this message. And it's not just an American phenomenon. I mean, this is something that's come out of right-wing authoritarianism around the world. And it's a playbook that Trump has then tried to replicate here.

KELLY: So in terms of who he is trying to appeal to here, it's his base?

MONTANARO: Definitely his base voters. He's trying to then peel off, potentially, people who might feel like the border is not secure enough, and Biden's not doing a good enough job and use that culture to fire up people in, say, places like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan - you know, all the swing states that have a significant number of working-class white voters who might have some tendency, Trump feels, to maybe not want so many immigrants in the country.

KELLY: Has anyone figured out the best way to respond to this, to try to make this backfire on Trump?

MONTANARO: Well, I think in a general election, it certainly has the potential to backfire and has backfired on Trump. I mean, this is exactly one of the reasons why more than 50% of the country routinely and continuously says that they dislike Trump. Trump has higher favorability ratings in many polls than Joe Biden does, and a lot of it is because of these kinds of petty cultural fights and things that he stirs up.

Now, when it comes to Republicans, though, they're so nervous about having to win over their base that, for the most part, they have not really responded in a very strong way, even drawing the line on something like this. You know, I was struck by an interview that a supporter of Nikki Haley's had on CNN, where - this was Congressman Northam (ph) of Georgia - was asked directly about this. He supports Haley. And he basically said, you know, I'm not going to tell anyone what to do or how to run their campaigns. Everyone has a right to run their campaigns. But, you know, that's not really an answer that's rooted in any kind of morality.

KELLY: NPR's Domenico Montanaro talking with us about Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, both U.S. citizens, both born in the United States, both running for president. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and I'm sure if it's not Haley and it's Trump, there'll be some other target for Trump to do the same thing that we'll talk about over the next 10 months.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.