The birth of a candidacy: Did the president’s mockery propel Trump into the race?

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

It was a painful moment for Donald Trump. As he sat in his tuxedo at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama mercilessly mocked him as a loony conspiracy theorist. The real estate mogul, grim-faced, watched helplessly, unable to respond, while hundreds of journalists and their celebrity guests convulsed in laughter.

But it may also have been a transformative moment, according to a new “Frontline” documentary on the presidential race, called “The Choice 2016,” which airs next Tuesday night on PBS. “I think that is the night that he resolves to run for president,” Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser and confidant, says in the film. “I think that he is kind of motivated by it. ‘Maybe I’ll just run. Maybe I’ll show them all.’”

The idea that Trump’s public humiliation on the evening of April 30, 2011, steeled his resolve to run for president has been raised before — and disputed by Trump himself. “It’s such a false narrative,” Trump told the Washington Post’s Roxanne Roberts last April. “I had a phenomenal time. I had a great evening.”

But “The Choice” marshals the evidence in a compelling way, intersplicing footage of Obama’s cutting jokes and Trump’s grimace with fresh interviews with others who were there, including some who are sympathetic to Trump. Omarosa Manigault, the former “Apprentice” star who now serves as director of African-American outreach for the Trump campaign, notes that when she talked to Trump at the start of the evening — he was a guest of the Washington Post, no less — “he was in just such a great mood. And he was very jovial.”

 

During his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington on April 30, 2011, President Obama watches the accompanying video poking fun at Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

But as the president “kept going and going and he just kept hammering him,” Trump’s mood changed, she says. His face became “incredibly serious. He just put on a poker face.” And by the time the skewering was over, she suggests, Trump wanted payback.

“Every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump,” Manigault says. “It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, whoever disagreed, whoever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”

What is unmistakable, in watching “The Choice,” is that Obama (who, unknown to all those in the crowd, had just approved the raid that would kill Osama bin Laden) wanted his own revenge. For months, Trump had grabbed headlines with his baseless “birther” conspiracy theories, telling every talk show host who would listen that the president “may not have been born in this country” and was refusing to release his full long-form birth certificate because “maybe it says he’s a Muslim.”

“I will tell you this. If he wasn’t born in this country, it’s one of the great scams of all time,” Trump can be heard in the “The Choice” telling Bill O’Reilly (to which the Fox News host replies, “Absolutely!”).

For most in the country, and certainly virtually everybody at the correspondents’ dinner that night, the entire “controversy” was nutty. The Obama campaign in 2008 had released his short-form birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii. Hawaiian state officials had vouchsafed its authenticity. There was even a contemporaneous notice in a Honolulu newspaper reporting Obama’s Aug. 4, 1961, birth in a local hospital. (Had the birth notice been planted, the birth conspiracy theorists demanded to know. Was it a false “cover” so that the infant Obama could grow up and 47 years later run for president?)

Finally, Obama, fed up, directed the White House to retrieve and release his full long-form birth certificate on April 27, 2011, seemingly putting the entire matter to rest. And so, at the correspondents’ dinner three nights later, the president was determined to have his fun — at Trump’s expense.

“No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate to rest than the Donald,” Obama said in his talk that night. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like did we fake the moon landing?”

Left, a video mockup that accompanied President Obama’s remarks at the 2011 annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington shows what Obama said a Donald Trump White House would look like if the celebrity businessman were to win the 2012 presidential elections; right, Trump arrives for pre-parties before the dinner on April 30, 2011. (Photos: Jason Reed/Reuters, Jim Bourg/Reuters)

And it didn’t stop there. Obama sarcastically mocked Trump for his “credentials and experience,” making tough decisions as host of “Celebrity Apprentice.” And the idea — because even then, Trump was publicly toying with running for president — that he “certainly would bring some change to the White House.” The cameras covering the event then cut to an overhead screen showing the White House with a mock “Trump White House Resort and Casino” sign on it.

The audience loved it, cracking up time and again at the president’s timing and delivery. But Trump’s face was frozen. “He’s being treated like a piñata by the president of the United States,” says Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer. “And I think he felt humiliated.”

For another Trump biographer interviewed in “The Choice,” it was a painful wound and a long-lasting one. “Donald dreads humiliation, and he dreads shame,” says Michael D’Antonio, author of “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success.” “And this is why he often attempts to humiliate and shame other people. So in the case of the president ridiculing him, I think it was intolerable for Donald Trump.”

Intolerable to the point that five years later, Trump would be back — nearly neck and neck in the polls, offering him a chance to put his real mark on the White House — and exact “the ultimate revenge.”

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FRONTLINE’s “The Choice 2016” premieres on PBS this Tuesday, September 27, at 9 p.m. ET and PT and 8 p.m. CT (check local listings).