One challenging aspect of covering Donald Trump’s campaign is how regularly the candidate references obscure internet memes, conspiracy theories and viral tweets that few outside the alt-right biosphere he now inhabits are familiar with.
A prime example was his answer, on Tuesday, when a CNN reporter, Jeremy Diamond, asked, “Do you still think the election’s going to be stolen from you?”
“Ask Obama,” Trump said, turning to face the reporter. “Tell him to look at his tape, when he was running eight years ago.” Without further explanation, he then turned and walked away, leaving reporters to ask themselves: what tape?
After some searching, it became evident that Trump was probably referring to a section of this C-Span video, recorded on September 3, 2008, as then-Senator Barack Obama fielded questions from voters at Kent State University-Tuscarawas in New Philadelphia, Ohio.
A portion of that video got a lot of attention on the alt-right last week, when Jeff Poor, a Breibart reporter, came across it on the C-Span website, clipped out three minutes of Obama talking about election security and posted it, along with a transcript, on the news site.
Poor’s clip, which was copied to YouTube by a Trump fan who added the misleading headline, “Obama Admits to Rigged Elections Back in 2008,” shows Obama answering a voter who asked: “I would just like to know what you can say to reassure us that this election will not be rigged or stolen.”
Obama responded by trying to reassure that voter that fears of vote-rigging by Republican officials (prompted by claims from some on the left that Ohio had been stolen from John Kerry in 2004) would simply not be an issue in the 2008 election, since Democrats were by then in charge of the state’s government. “I tell you what, it helps in Ohio that we’ve got Democrats in charge of the machines,” Obama said, to some laughter and applause. He went on to advocate non-partisan oversight of the election system and common sense reform of the electronic voting systems to require that they provide paper receipts.
“Look, I come from Chicago,” Obama said, “so I want to be honest — it’s not as if it’s just Republicans who have monkeyed around with elections in the past, sometimes Democrats have, too.”
You know, whenever people are in power, they have this tendency to try to, you know, tilt things in their direction. That’s why we’ve got to have, I believe, a Voting Rights Division in the Justice Department that is non-partisan, and that is serious about investigating cases of vote fraud, is serious about making sure that people are not being discouraged to vote. That’s why the voting-rights legislation that was passed a couple years ago to help county clerks make sure that the machines were in place that were needed are important. That’s why we need paper trails on these new electronic machines, so that you actually have something that you can hang on to after you’ve punched that letter, make sure it hasn’t been hacked into. I mean, those are all part of the process of making sure that our democracy works for everybody….
This is near and dear to my heart, because when I was a lawyer, I practiced voting rights law. And I filed a lot of lawsuits. In Illinois, I helped to make sure that you could go ahead and get registered at driver’s license facilities — at the DMV. So I’ve been working on this for a long time. I think the more people participate, the more they are paying attention, ultimately, the better off everybody is.
According to Poor, the Breitbart reporter, Obama’s observation that American elections have been tampered with by both parties, in the past, seemed terribly damning — as did his statement that “it helps” that Democrats would have oversight of the machines in Ohio in 2008. Outside that partisan bubble, however, it seems plain that Obama said something much less controversial.
Perhaps realizing that Obama’s full comments were not particularly supportive of the right-wing fever dream that the election is being “rigged” against Trump, by the end of Tuesday, he tweeted out not the full video but a highly edited version that distorts those remarks.
The edited video posted on Trump’s Twitter feed removed Obama’s call for “a Voting Rights Division in the Justice Department that is non-partisan” and would investigate allegations of vote fraud, but also ensure “that people are not being discouraged to vote.”
Trump’s edit also omitted the last four words of Obama’s recollection about having worked in Illinois “to make sure that you could go ahead and get registered at driver’s license facilities — at the DMV.” That sentence was clipped to end, weirdly, at the word “license,” perhaps to make it seem like support for the false belief embraced by the alt-right, that undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses are able to vote in elections.