The likely 2020 candidate is getting flak from the left and right after trying to defuse a Trump-driven controversy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s effort to defuse the Donald Trump-fueled controversy over her past claims of Native American ancestry seems to have done just the opposite.
Twenty-four hours later, outrage on the left and right was still running strong, as questions swirled about the likely 2020 candidate’s timing and political judgment.
Several Democrats expressed frustration that Warren (D-Mass.) would choose to create a media sideshow so close to the important 2018 midterms. And some progressives and Native Americans fumed that Warren appeared to be appropriating tribal identity to settle a political controversy.
Far from clearing Warren’s path to a post-midterm presidential campaign launch, as it seemed designed to achieve, Warren’s elaborate rollout on Monday — complete with DNA test results, a slick video and an attempt to go toe-to-toe with the tweeter-in-chief on his own ground — seems to have created as many headaches for her as it alleviated. Some Democrats privately compared the situation to Hillary Clinton’s never-ending email debacle.
Cherokee Nation issued a blistering statement on Monday that said “[u]sing a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. went on to say that Warren’s move “makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens.”
Shortly after Cherokee Nation released that statement, Warren tweeted that “DNA & family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only — only — by Tribal Nations. I respect the distinction, & don’t list myself as Native in the Senate,” echoing what she had said in her video. She added that President Trump’s frequent mocking of her as “Pocahontas” was her main motive in trying to settle questions about her ancestry. “I won’t sit quietly for@realDonaldTrump‘s racism, so I took a test.”
Warren’s aides declined to comment further.
Some Democrats were surprised that Warren wasn’t able to blunt the Cherokee Nation’s response, especially after recently hiring the Democratic National Committee‘s director of Native American and Rural Engagement, PaaWee Rivera.
Perhaps predictably, Warren’s moves did nothing to dissuade Trump’s racially tinged attacks and prompted a pile-on from the right, which ridiculed Warren for releasing a test that showed she was likely somewhere between 1/64 and 1/1024 Native American. Several conservative commentators cracked that Warren was now head of the “Me Sioux” movement, and others began poking at the DNA science to try and prove that the issue wasn’t settled.
Trump also weighed in via Twitter: “Pocahontas (the bad version), sometimes referred to as Elizabeth Warren, is getting slammed.” In a follow-up tweet, Trump thanked the Cherokee Nation for ”revealing that Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, is a complete and total Fraud!”
Trump relishes going after Warren, viewing his Pocahontas nickname as shorthand for painting her as a liar, one presidential official told POLITICO.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, dismissed the DNA test as “junk science” and said Warren’s move “should be career ending.”
“In a matter of minutes, she managed to alienate Native Americans, whom she claims as her own, and high-ranking Democrats, whom she would need to successfully run for president,” Conway said in an interview Tuesday. “We saw this in 2016; we don’t need another female candidate who has a casual relationship with the truth, can’t get her story straight, blames everybody else and is screechy and preachy to the electorate.”
The controversy prompted some Democrats to debate whether Warren had made a strategic mistake in trying to squelch the controversy at this moment and in this way.
“I think what she did was wise. The fact that Trump is resuming the attacks and is not cowed is not the standard of whether it was successful,” said Brian Fallon, who was Clinton’s press secretary during the 2016 campaign.
While some Democrats drew parallels to Clinton’s emails — a political controversy without end that could haunt a presidential run — Fallon and other former Clinton officials said they thought the issue was more akin to the Trump-led Obama “birther” conspiracy theory.
“Trump engaged in birtherism for years, but the media calls him out for it for being racist and untrue,” Fallon said. “Yes, the Obama people have had to fend it off for years, but it’s not taken seriously by serious people.”
A former Clinton aide said “any attack Trump chooses to amplify repeatedly has the possibility of becoming a vulnerability, but this is different than emails for several reasons.” The aide said Warren will not face the congressional and FBI investigations that Clinton did and that there won’t be the specter of new emails being released every few weeks. During the 2016 campaign, Clinton was accused of mishandling classified information by using a private server while serving as secretary of State, and the State Department frequently released batches of her emails.
Another former Clinton aide said Warren doesn’t carry the Clinton stigma. Clinton’s email controversy stuck because it embodied decades of negative messaging that the former secretary is State isn’t trustworthy.
Still, some Democrats expressed frustration that Warren seemed to be more focused on 2020 than 2018. In the first presidential state of Iowa, the former chair of the state’s Democratic Party, Sue Dvorsky, criticized Warren for her timing.
“That conversation, is that relative to health care? Medicaid?” asked Dvorsky, adding that Warren would “do well to get here” and assist on the ground before Nov. 6. Still, Warren’s allies are quick to point out that she has supported many Democrats across the country, distributed $8 million to their campaigns, and placed staff in key races.
Conway also derided Warren for her White House focus. “The only candidate guaranteed to be on the 2020 presidential ballot — Donald J. Trump — is the only one who seems to be talking about 2018, and not 2020.”
Yet other Democrats said Warren’s video on Monday reminded them of Clinton in another way: a 60-something white woman who conveyed past struggles that didn’t connect with today’s progressive arm of the party.
“This whole week from Elizabeth Warren has seemed heavy-handed and a little out of touch,” said a national Democratic strategist who’s not aligned with any presidential campaign.
“The long story she fed about all the work she did in the midterms” — the person added, referring to a Washington Post article last weekend detailing Warren’s extensive 2018 political efforts — “to me it’s a little bit ludicrous to those of us on the ground, because it doesn’t seem like what she’s doing is anything different than what 20 other people are doing.”