WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday gave credence to a false and racist conspiracy theory 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 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.
Trump has questioned other rivals’ eligibility to serve in the White House. In 2016, the Republican nomination fight raised questions about whether rival Sen. Ted Cruz met “natural-born” citizen requirements. Cruz was born in Canada, but his mother was born in the United States.
Similarly, in 2008, questions arose about whether Sen. John McCain qualified as a “natural-born citizen” because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was stationed.
Questions about McCain’s qualification spurred bipartisan outrage and the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution declaring McCain, who become the GOP presidential nominee, a natural-born citizen. Obama, who beat McCain in the 2008 race for the White House, was even a co-sponsor of the McCain resolution.