WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday gave credence to a false and racist conspiracy theory about Kamala Harris’ eligibility to be vice-president, fuelling 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” rumours 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 rumours “very serious.”
The conspiracy theory 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 for both the vice presidency and presidency 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’s comments 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 been 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 birthright citizenship. Eastman sowed doubt about Harris’ eligibility based on her parents’ immigration status. Harris’ mother was born in India and her father was born in Jamaica.
But constitutional law experts say Harris’ parents are beside the point. The 14th Amendment grants citizenship to all people born in the U.S. and Article II Section 1 of the Constitution says that to be eligible for the vice presidency and presidency a candidate must be natural-born U.S. citizen, at least 35, and a resident of the United States for a minimum of 14 years.
“No, there’s no question about it,” said Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio. “It’s been recognized since the people drafted it back in the 39th Congress that (the 14th) amendment would cover people not just born to American citizens but born on American soil.”
The president’s reelection campaign’s senior lawyer, Jenna Ellis, shared the controversial Eastman 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.”
After Trump’s remarks, 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 as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
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, arguing that Eastman “was focusing on a long-standing, somewhat arcane legal debate” about the 14th Amendment and not trying to “ignite a racist conspiracy theory around Kamala Harris’ candidacy.”