Donald Trump in 2013 asked James O’Keefe, the controversial conservative filmmaker, if he could “get inside” Columbia University and obtain President Obama’s sealed college records, according to a passage in O’Keefe’s forthcoming book, a copy of which was reviewed by CNN.
O’Keefe, a guerrilla filmmaker whom critics have decried for his tactics and who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for entering federal property in 2010 under false pretenses, writes in “American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News” that during a meeting in New York City Trump complimented his ACORN sting videos (“That pimp and hooker thing you did, wow!”). But, O’Keefe writes, Trump “was a man with a plan” and “did not agree to this meeting to sing my praises.”
What was Trump’s plan?
According to O’Keefe, Trump “suspected Obama had presented himself as a foreign student on application materials to ease his way into New York’s Columbia University, maybe even Harvard too, and perhaps picked up a few scholarships along the way.”
O’Keefe wrote that during the 2013 meeting Trump suggested O’Keefe infiltrate Columbia and obtain the sealed records: “‘Nobody else can get this information,'” O’Keefe quoted Trump as saying. “‘Do you think you could get inside Columbia?'”
O’Keefe said he explained to Trump that the request did not fall into his “line of work,” and that he considered himself and his colleagues to be journalists, not “private eyes.”
But that didn’t seem to deter Trump. At the end of the meeting, O’Keefe wrote, “Trump shook my hand, encouraged me to keep up the good work, and half-whispered, ‘Do Columbia.'”
Trump’s desire for these records would likely have had its roots in his obsession with Obama’s birth certificate, and the false conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside the U.S. Several of the many varying and often contradictory threads of the conspiracy theory centered on Obama’s records from Columbia, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1983. Some of the conspiracy theorists believed, without evidence, that there would have been something suspicious in his records from that period.
Roughly two years before the meeting between Trump and O’Keefe, at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama had mocked Trump, who was in the audience, over his “birther” beliefs.
In 2016, while running for president, Trump held a news conference at which he backed off the conspiracy theory he had fueled and said he believed Obama was born in the United States — more than five years after Obama had released his original long-form birth certificate from Hawaii. The New York Times, however, reported in November of last year that he had privately begun questioning the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate again.
The Daily Caller was the first to report on this part of O’Keefe’s book.
A spokesperson for the White House did not respond to a request for comment from CNN. O’Keefe declined to address the substance of this story, only telling CNN through a spokesperson that he would “be more than happy to go live on the air to answer questions regarding the book.” CNN received a review copy of the book from its publisher.
In the book, O’Keefe writes that the meeting was arranged by Republican political operative Sam Nunberg. Reached by phone, Nunberg recalled the meeting and confirmed he set it up. He said Trump was impressed with O’Keefe’s work and, among other things, the number of retweets O’Keefe would get on Twitter.
Nunberg stressed repeatedly that he did not believe during the meeting that Trump was asking O’Keefe to “commit a crime.”
“I recall that the Columbia records were brought up,” Nunberg told CNN. “I in no way recall Trump asking James to do something illegal. … He did not ask him to go in there and break in and get the records.”
Nunberg added, “Trump was saying something along the lines of, ‘Try to find somebody you can talk to that’s saying we are hiding the records.’ Something along those lines.”
O’Keefe’s book is set to be released on Tuesday.
CNNMoney (New York) First published January 12, 2018: 8:13 PM ET