If you want to understand how Donald Trump has become the front-runner in the Republican presidential contest, one place to start is Canada. Not the country, mind you, but the issue of whether Ted Cruz, who was born in the nation to our north, is eligible to run for president.
As the US Constitution makes clear, only “natural born citizens” of the United States are eligible to hold the nation’s highest office. While it’s true that Cruz was born in Canada, his mother was an American citizen at the time, and the generally accepted legal view is that if you’re born to an American — even on foreign soil — you’re considered a natural born citizen. Until a few weeks ago, this was largely considered a settled matter.
Then Trump started talking about it.
Trump’s strategy — and it differs from his usual bombast — is that instead of directly saying that Cruz is not eligible to be president, he is merely “raising questions” and making clear that this could be an issue. “He was born in Canada,” Trump said over the weekend. “Whether we like it, don’t like it, he lived there, he was there, he was born in Canada, I guess his parents voted in Canada, a lot of things, I mean a lot of things happened. . . . So if you’re born in Canada, it’s immediately a little bit of a problem.”
According to Trump, “it’s not a settled matter,” and he is now urging Cruz to get a “declaratory judgment” on the matter so it wouldn’t come up later. “If Ted is the nominee, he will be sued by the Democrats,” says Trump. “They got to work it out. . . . [Y]ou have to have the courts come up with a ruling or you have a candidate who just cannot run. . . . [Y]ou can’t have that cloud over your head.”
This is, as the kids might say, an A+ troll.
Since Trump first started raising the subject, John McCain (who was born in Panama and had the same issues raised about him in 2008) suggested that the issue should be “looked at,” before he backtracked on that position. Laurence Tribe, a liberal professor who taught Cruz constitutional law at Harvard, is arguing that “the legal/constitutional issues around whether [Cruz’s] a natural-born citizen are . . . murky and unsettled.” Even Terry Branstad, governor of the crucial state of Iowa, home of the first GOP caucus, is saying the issue is “fair game.”
Now Cruz is being forced to answer questions on the issue, and more and more reporters are digging into it.
To put it bluntly, Trump has played this beautifully. Since he knows that practically every utterance out of his mouth gets media attention, it was relatively easy for him to put this out there, and let others run with it. Since there are many within the GOP — like McCain and pretty much the entire GOP establishment — who can’t stand Cruz, there were plenty of folks willing to do so. The result is that for the past week, the birther questions have dominated news coverage, taken Cruz slightly off message, put him on the defensive, and likely planted seeds in the minds of some, though likely not a majority of, voters that Cruz may, in fact, not be eligible to be president. Considering the fact that a significant number of Republicans believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, Trump is pushing against an open door with GOP primary voters.
This doesn’t mean Cruz will lose in Iowa — though Trump has regained the lead there according to new polls out Monday — and it doesn’t mean that the Cruz birther issue will have legs. It also doesn’t mean he is not eligible. He almost certainly is. But it does show that when it comes to manipulating news coverage in this presidential campaign, Trump has no rival. It’s a good part of the reason he’s leading the GOP pack.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.