Twenty-four hours after Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren shocked the political world with a five-minute video (and a mountain of documentation) aimed at putting to bed the controversy over her claims of Native American heritage, it’s becoming increasingly clear the strategy amounts to a swing and a miss.
Warren’s goal was to take the issue of her heritage off the table for nervous Democrats and to show that she was ready, willing and able to stand up to President Donald Trump if and when the time came that she was the party’s nominee against him in 2020. The problem is that, when you strip away all of the glitz of her well-produced video, you are left with this: There’s still no certainty that Warren is, in any meaningful way, Native American.
Yes, Stanford geneticist Carlos Bustamante tells Warren in the video that “the facts suggest that you absolutely have a Native American ancestor in your pedigree.” But the estimates of just how much Native American blood Warren actually posses range from 1/64th to a whopping 1/1024th. Which, um, ain’t a lot.
Trump himself picked up on that uncertainty in a series of tweets (of course) on Tuesday morning.
“Pocahontas (the bad version), sometimes referred to as Elizabeth Warren, is getting slammed,” tweeted Trump. “She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024, far less than the average American. Now Cherokee Nation denies her, ‘DNA test is useless.’ Even they don’t want her. Phony!”
(Trump is referring to this statement from Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr.: “A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America.”)
Trump added: “Now that her claims of being of Indian heritage have turned out to be a scam and a lie, Elizabeth Warren should apologize for perpetrating this fraud against the American Public. Harvard called her ‘a person of color’ (amazing con), and would not have taken her otherwise!
(That claim is, based on available facts, untrue. There’s no evidence that Warren was hired by Harvard Law School – or anywhere else – because she claimed minority status due to her Native American heritage.)
This is, of course, what Trump does. He bullies – regardless of the facts. Ask yourself this: If Warren had produced a DNA test that confirmed she was half Native American, do you think Trump would have simply conceded the point and moved on? Of course not! He would have almost certainly sent a similar tweet to the one Tuesday in which he alleged – with no evidence – that the DNA test was “bogus.”
So, if Warren thought that this video and DNA test would shut Trump up, she was dangerously mistaken. But my guess is that neither Warren nor her campaign team thought that. Because they aren’t hopelessly naive.
My strong sense is that the whole presentation of facts on Monday was aimed not at Trump at all but rather at Democratic activists and donors who likely expressed some level of nervousness directly to Warren about how the whole “Pocahontas” attack could be used against her by Trump come 2020. Remember that every political party re-fights the last election in the next election. And in the last election, Democrats lost what they believed to be a sure thing because they nominated someone in Hillary Clinton who had enough political baggage to fill a train car. Trump exploited Clinton’s baggage by, often untruthfully, labeling her as something close to an unconvicted criminal.
With that as a backdrop, Warren’s struggle to fully explain her own claims of Native American heritage – and the fact that she was not initially entirely forthcoming when this all came out in 2012 about what she had told Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania about her minority status – is of concern for some Democrats. And that concern is something that Warren’s eventual Democratic opponents will focus in on as they try to foment doubts among voters as to whether the Massachusetts senator is the right person to pick to take on Trump.
What Warren was trying to do with this video and DNA test then is show fellow Democrats that she was ready to fight back and had the firepower to rebut any attacks by Trump. A good idea – in theory! But, in practice, things are working out less well. Because Warren is not able to provide an answer on her Native American background that seems to totally and completely pass the smell test.
Prior to her big Monday rollout, we knew that she had told people she was part Native American because her mother and her mother’s family had told her that. Now, we have a geneticist saying “the facts suggest” that she has some Native American ancestry and the estimates of how much Indian blood Warren actually has range wildly – and could be as little as 1/1024th.
That’s not certainty. Not close. And the uncertainty remains something that can and will be exploited – by Trump publicly and by her likely Democratic opponents in more hushed conversations with key donors and party activists.
That fact means Warren’s strategy amounts to a swing and a miss.