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Malik Obama: Donald Trump’s debate guest and Barack’s half-brother, explained

He used to be a target for right-wing conspiracists. Now he’s one of their heroes.

Malik Obama, half-brother of Barack Obama, campaigning for state office in Kenya. Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty

The 2016 election is a bizarre political circus. So it’s fitting, in a way, that one of Donald Trump’s invited guests for the third and last presidential debate is Malik Obama — President Obama’s somewhat-estranged, Kenyan-resident, sketchy-philanthropist half-brother.

Ostensibly, Malik Obama is attending the debate simply because he supports Donald Trump. He endorsed Trump back in July, and promised that he’d return to the US from Kenya to vote for him in November. (Malik Obama is a naturalized US citizen who lived in the US for years, and is registered to vote in Maryland.)

Obama’s reasoning for his endorsement, though, was something of a hodgepodge. He liked the slogan “Make America Great Again”; he thought Trump was honest; he didn’t like Hillary Clinton’s careless approach to email security; he opposed same-sex marriage; he wanted to join the party of Lincoln; he was upset that Clinton and Barack Obama had helped overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, who was a friend of his.

That bizarre litany should give you a clue about who Malik Obama really is, or at least what he’s become: a somewhat-scammy opportunist. Over the course of President Obama’s administration, Malik has gone from being a frequent bit player in right-wing conspiracy theories to being a champion of them.

His alliance with the far right is now being consummated with his invitation to tonight’s debate. Trump may be using Malik Obama for a cheap media hit and a dog-whistle throwback to his birther roots, but Obama, just as assuredly, is using Donald Trump.

Malik is Barack Obama’s older brother but has spent the past several years in his shadow

Abon’go Malik Obama was a year old when his father, Barack H. Obama Sr., left Kenya for the United States in 1960 (where he’d eventually meet Stanley Ann Dunham and father Barack H. Obama Jr.). Malik eventually made his way to the United States as well; he’s lived off and on in the Washington, DC, area since the mid-1980s, working for various nonprofit organizations.

When Barack Obama decided he wanted to get to know the Kenyan side of his family — a journey he recounts in Dreams from My Father — Malik was right there. The two of them became close; Malik brought Barack and Michelle to visit Kenya in 1988, and Malik was best man at Barack’s wedding (and vice versa).

By the time Barack Obama got elected president, though, the two appeared to have drifted apart (as of 2013, they talked about once a year, according to Malik). Malik made the decision to move back to his family’s hometown of Kogelo. He started a foundation called the Barack H. Obama Foundation (named for their father), collected somewhere between three and 12 wives, including a teenage girl, and fancied himself a future president of Kenya.

That dream appears to have been dashed when he ran for governor of the state of Siaya in 2013 and got a measly 1 percent of the vote. (According to a GQ feature by Marshall Sella, Kenyan voters didn’t think much of Malik because he’d only lived in the area for five years.)

Malik Obama, campaigning for office in Kenya.
Mark Karumba/AFP via Getty

These days, Malik Obama appears to be, if not an outright scam artist, certainly something of a hustler. (Boston Globe columnist Farah Stockman once described him as “a hot mess.”) In 2013 and again in 2015, he auctioned off personal letters from Barack Obama. He’s been known to criticize journalists for asking him questions about his family without donating to him. When he was contacted by a Politico reporter in 2015 (when Obama made a state visit to Kenya), he gave a simple ultimatum: “I will talk to you for $10,000.”

The foundation — and Malik’s Muslim faith and strange geopolitical connections — made him a right-wing conspiracy target

Any news about Barack Obama’s relatives in Kenya is automatically more interesting to people who believe that Obama was really born in Kenya himself. Malik Obama has never been much of a figure in the mainstream press, but among right-wing birther sites like WorldNetDaily, he made recurring appearances in various conspiracy theories.

He was accused of supporting Hamas (and therefore helping his brother to undermine Israel), after he was photographed wearing a scarf that (the Daily Mail claimed) had Hamas slogans on it. He was alleged to be a wanted man in Egypt, accused of raising money for the Muslim Brotherhood.

The linchpin for these conspiracy theories was the Barack H. Obama Foundation — and, in particular, the IRS’s treatment of it.

House Holds Hearing On Political Targeting At The IRS
Bet you weren’t expecting the IRS scandal to come up here, were you?
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The foundation started collecting donations in 2009, but a New York Post article in 2011 (tipped off by the conservative National Legal and Policy Center) found that it still wasn’t registered as a 501(c)(3) and therefore wasn’t legally allowed to fundraise. The foundation applied with the IRS a few weeks after the Post story broke, and was granted 501(c)(3) status retroactively.

In 2013 — in the midst of reports that the IRS had dragged its feet in approving conservative groups’ applications for nonprofit status — the Washington Post reported that the IRS had approved Malik Obama’s application in a highly unusual 34 days. This seems to have been shoddy at best on the IRS’s part, though there’s no evidence that Barack Obama himself was involved. But to the conservative conspiracy media, it was a key piece of evidence that Obama was turning the federal government into (implicitly) a Third World African fiefdom.

Malik Obama was something of an ideal villain. He was a Muslim (a convert) with between three and 12 wives (he won’t confirm to the press how many), some of whom he had allegedly beaten. His geopolitics were legitimately suspect: In addition to a friendship with Qaddafi, he had close ties to the president of Sudan. And most importantly, of course, he was living in Kenya — in Barack H. Obama Sr.’s ancestral hometown.

How Malik Obama learned to love the far right

These days, though, the conservative press plays down Malik Obama’s Kenyan residence. He’s more often described as “a US citizen who splits his time between Washington and Kenya” — which seems like a bit of a stretch. (At least one mainstream news article described him as “living in Washington” after talking to him over the phone at his home in Kogelo.)

The switch is easily explained: Malik went from being a useful Obama ally to a useful Obama critic. He embraced the people who actually paid attention to him, and they embraced him right back.

A screenshot from filmmaker Joel Gilbert (Dreams From My Real Father)'s interview with Malik Obama in 2015.
A screenshot from filmmaker Joel Gilbert’s (Dreams From My Real Father) interview with Malik Obama in 2015.
Screenshot via YouTube

Since his own political future collapsed, Malik appears to have soured on his brother. In 2013, he was proud that he talked to Barack Obama once a year; by 2016, he was bringing it up as evidence that his brother had forgotten about him.

It’s unclear exactly why Malik’s attitude changed. Maybe it was Barack’s role in taking out Qaddafi — at one point, Malik claimed he’d called Barack to urge him to spare the Libyan dictator, but the president didn’t budge.

Or maybe it’s that he thinks Barack Obama hasn’t done enough to help Malik, his family, or his foundation. Malik’s offhand suggestions that maybe President Obama could have done more for his Kenyan family have hardened into full-blown animosity. He’s told some outlets he’s mad that Barack didn’t help him in his doomed 2013 run for office; he’s told others that Barack H. Obama Jr. hasn’t been as involved with the Barack H. Obama Foundation as he ought to be.

Whatever the cause, Malik suddenly resurfaced on WorldNetDaily and other conservative sites on 2015, fully reclaimed as a hero. He did a long interview with Joel Gilbert, director of the birther documentary Dreams From My Real Father, criticizing Obama as “cold” and ruthless.

Malik even went so far as to endorse the birther cause: claiming that Barack Obama was really the son of communist agitator Frank Marshall Davis. (Of course, if this theory were correct, Malik and Barack Obama really wouldn’t be related at all.)

Gilbert vouched for Malik Obama’s bona fides, claiming that his ties to radicals had been “misinterpreted” before. Since then, Malik has gotten press a few times for criticisms of Obama — most recently, and prominently, when he endorsed Trump.

Trump invited Malik Obama to the debate as an Easter egg for the conservative base

Some of Trump’s other debate invitees (like Pat Smith, who lost her son in the 2012 attack on Benghazi) have been attempts to bait Hillary Clinton into losing her composure. But none so far have worked — and furthermore, Malik Obama is more of a troll on Barack Obama than on Hillary Clinton.

If Clinton wasn’t ruffled by the presence of three women who’ve accused her husband of sexual misconduct during the second presidential debate — when, due to the town hall format, she could easily see the audience — is she really going to be thrown off her game by the presence of some other dude’s half-brother somewhere in the darkened auditorium?

Of course she isn’t. The real purpose of Malik Obama’s presence on Wednesday night is to get media attention (something Donald Trump believes you can literally never have enough of). More specifically, it’s a hidden in-joke — an Easter egg, if you will — for Trump’s conspiracy-gorged base.

Trump may have officially disowned birtherism earlier in his campaign. But Malik Obama is a birther himself, not to mention a living, breathing reminder of Barack Obama’s supposed foreignness. Trump might not be running against Obama, but his argument that Democrats are globalists, trying to get rid of borders (“if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country”) and cut deals that allow other countries to get ahead, certainly looks stronger to people who believe the current president is literally a foreigner.

Obama's Kenyan family
Obama's Kenyan family. Cue ominous music.
Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty

But the presence of Malik, and his adoption by the far right, is ironic for this very reason. There’s no way conservatives would support a former Kenyan politician flying from Kenya to vote in a US presidential election if he weren’t voting for Donald Trump.

In fact, if Malik Obama were an immigrant, he’d be exactly the kind of immigrant to whom Donald Trump says we should deny visas: a Muslim from a country with a history of unrest who doesn’t share American family values, like belief in the equality of women and LGBTQ people.

Of course, since Malik Obama is a naturalized citizen, there’s no visa for the government to deny. That speaks to the incoherence of Trump’s immigration ban. But it also speaks to just how little, with three weeks to go before the election, Trump and his campaign appear to care about anything but the lulz.

CORRECTION: This article, as originally posted, inaccurately characterized Trump’s guests at the second debate as Bill Clinton’s “mistresses.” They were women who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. We’ve updated the piece accordingly.

Watch: Trump on birther movement in earlier debate