WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday gave credence to a false and racist conspiracy about Kamala Harris’ eligibility to be vice president, fueling an online misinformation campaign that parallels the one he used to power his rise into politics.
Asked about the matter at the White House, Trump told reporters he had “heard” rumors that Harris, a Black woman and U.S.-born citizen whose parents were immigrants, does not meet the requirement to serve in the White House. The president said he considered the rumors “very serious.”
The conspiracy is false. Harris, who was tapped this week by Joe Biden to serve as his running mate on the Democratic ticket, was born in Oakland, California, and is eligible to be president under the constitutional requirements. The question is not even considered complex, according to constitution lawyers.
“Full stop, end of story, period, exclamation point,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School.
Trump built his political career on questioning a political opponent’s legitimacy. He was a high-profile force behind the so-called “birther movement” — the lie that questioned whether President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, was eligible to serve. Only after mounting pressure during his 2016 campaign did Trump disavow the claims.
Trump comments about Harris on Thursday landed in a blizzard of other untrue, racist or sexist claims unleashed across social media and conservative websites after Biden picked Harris, the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman on a major party ticket. The misinformation campaign is built on falsehoods that have circulating less noticeably for months, propelled by Trump supporters, and now the president himself.
“I have no idea if that’s right,” said Trump, who said he had read a column on the subject earlier Thursday. “I would have thought, I would have assumed, that the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president.”
Trump made the comments in answer to a reporter’s question and appeared to be referencing an op-ed written by John Eastman, a conservative attorney who argues that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t grant citizenship to all people born in the U.S.
The president’s reelection campaign’s senior lawyer, Jenna Ellis, shared the controversial column on Thursday morning, hours before Trump was asked about it at a White House news conference.
Trump noted that the column was written by a “very highly qualified and very talented lawyer.”
Harris’ mother was born in India and her father was born in Jamaica.
But question of her parents’ birthplace is irrelevant, said Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.
“No, there’s no question about it,” he said. “It’s been recognized since the people drafted it back in the 39th Congress that (the 14th) amendment that would cover people not just born to American citizens but born on American soil.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens said the national party has no plans to challenge Harris’ eligibility for the Democratic ticket.
Eastman, the former dean of Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, where he is a professor, is also a senior fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute. According to his bio on the institute’s website, he also served from 1996 to 1997 as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and serves as chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex unions.
He also ran in the Republican primary to serve as California’s attorney general in 2010. Eastman was defeated by a candidate who went on to lose to Harris.
Newsweek, which published the controversial Eastman op-ed questioning Harris’ birthright qualification, defended the piece in their own op-ed Thursday, arguing that Eastman “was focusing on a long-standing, somewhat arcane legal debate about the precise meaning of the phrase ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof’ in the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment,” and not trying to “ignite a racist conspiracy theory around Kamala Harris’ candidacy.”
“His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism,’ the racist 2008 conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing then-candidate Barack Obama by claiming, baselessly, that he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya,” they wrote. “We share our readers’ revulsion at those vile lies.”
Other false and misleading rhetoric quickly emerged this week.
Conservative commentator Candace Owens posted a false attack on her Facebook page, claiming Harris had only started identifying as Black in the run-up to the presidential election. Until then, Owens wrote, Harris had solely described herself as Indian American.
Within 24 hours, nearly 200,000 users had liked the post — raking in more attention than Biden’s own Facebook post announcing his pick.