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Watch Obama and Seth Meyers viciously mock Donald Trump to his face in 2011

The White House Correspondents' Association Dinner
That's the smile of a president who knows he's both getting Osama bin Laden and mocking Donald Trump.
Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Five years and three days before Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States, he was the butt of President Barack Obama's jokes.

"No one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald," Obama joked at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2011. "And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?"

The evening was a victory lap: Three days earlier, Obama had released his "long-form birth certificate," the document Trump claimed didn't exist that proved once and for all that he was born in Hawaii.

The birth certificate release turned out to be the setup for a White House Correspondents' Dinner program that was substantially devoted to mocking Trump, including some particularly sharp barbs from Seth Meyers: "Trump said he's running as a Republican. Which is surprising; I just assumed he was running as a joke."

Trump said "he's got a great relationship with 'the blacks,'" Meyers said in one of his best lines, referencing phrasing Trump still uses. "Unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I bet he's mistaken."

It turned out to be a pivotal night, and not just because the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was going on at the same time. The New York Times's Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns wrote that the mockery of Trump "accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world."

"Some day someone may well write a kind of micro-history of that night, as historians now are wont to do, as a pivot in American life," Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker in 2015. "It might be devoted to the moment when new life was fed into an old ideology, when Trump’s ambitions suddenly turned over to the potent politics of shame and vengeance."

Trump's past as a birther explains his entire campaign

The jokes are still pretty good, even if they seem a little more unsettling these days. But Trump's history as a birther didn't just make him the butt of jokes after Obama released his real birth certificate. Considering that history also make the unprecedented success of his campaign seem, in retrospect, a little less shocking.

Trump embraced birtherism wholeheartedly. He sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama's birth certificate. He took the conspiracy theory mainstream; before Obama released his birth certificate, 45 percent of Republicans believed he was born elsewhere. And when Obama released the document, he did it to rebuke Trump — first calling him a "carnival barker" from the White House podium, then making him the object of ridicule at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Some Republicans continued to cling to "birther" theories, but they were in the minority.

But the fact that Trump could go from birther in chief to possible commander in chief also explains why his campaign didn't falter when he made other ridiculous or bigoted statements — refusing to disavow the KKK, referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists, mocking John McCain, calling Ted Cruz's wife ugly, accusing Cruz's father of plotting the Kennedy assassination, and so on.

Trump had become prominent in Republican politics by embracing a conspiracy theory that was not only far-fetched and racist but categorically false. He had been wrong in world-historical proportions, wrong enough that the leader of the free world made him the butt of jokes for nearly an hour. When he declared his candidacy for president, none of that seemed to bother Republican voters in the slightest.

So of course Trump's electoral prospects weren't going to be scuttled when it turned out that he was prone to making racist or far-fetched or patently unbelievable claims. Those qualities weren't deal breakers. They were the reason he rose to political prominence in the first place.

Obama on Trump's absence from last week's dinner

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