That didn’t take long.
President Trump used a White House press briefing on Thursday to amplify a long-debunked conspiracy theory about Sen. Kamala Harris’ legal eligibility to serve in high office.
Asked by a reporter about the baseless claim the California senator is somehow not a natural born citizen, the president ran with it: “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements, and by the way the lawyer who wrote the piece is highly qualified, very talented,” he said, referring to the conservative lawyer who put forth the bogus claim after Harris was tapped to join the Democratic ticket.
Hours earlier, an adviser to Trump’s re-election team had shared the conspiracy theory.
Jenna Ellis, a legal adviser with Trump 2020, retweeted an article questioning whether Harris was eligible to be president or vice president because the senator’s parents were immigrants. As she could surely learn with a quick search, the answer is yes. Harris, a natural-born U.S. citizen from Oakland, California, is allowed to hold those offices.
The bogus theory, deployed against the first Black woman to make a major party’s presidential ticket—as announced on Tuesday—has echoes of the “birther” conspiracy theory that Trump invoked against the first Black U.S. president, Barack Obama.
Asked about the retweet, Ellis told ABC News that “it’s an open question and one I think Harris should answer so the American people know for sure she is eligible."
It is not, in fact, an open question.
Harris meets all the legal requirements to be president. But because her parents were immigrants—her mother from India and her father from Jamaica—a predominantly right-wing theory has misrepresented citizenship law to falsely claim the American-born senator does not have full citizenship rights. Ellis retweeted her post from Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, who also could solve the supposed mystery of Harris’s eligibility in five seconds, if he wished to Google it.
Ellis has a long history of making bigoted claims. In her 2015 book, she wrote that a Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriange “told the LGBT community that their homosexual lifestyle was not just legal privately, but morally validated openly through government recognition and social celebration and therefore equally as valued as heterosexual unions.”
After the 2015 massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Ellis wrote a column warning that the tragedy could somehow be used to support homosexuality.
Trump personally fueled unfounded citizenship doubts the last time a Black American landed on a major party presidential ticket. Trump famously pushed the “birther” theory about Obama, suggesting that he was not born in Hawaii (he was), but in Kenya (he was not).
“I’m starting to think that he was not born here,” Trump said in a 2011 interview. The following year, as Obama was up for re-election, Trump tweeted that “an ‘extremely credible source' has called my office and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud.”
Trump persisted with the theory even after Obama secured a second term. “Attention all hackers: You are hacking everything else so please hack Obama's college records (destroyed?) and check ‘place of birth,’” he tweeted in 2014.
The false narrative about Harris’ eligibility, and other theories like it, have previously bubbled up on Twitter when Harris surged in the presidential polls. In January 2019, chronic hoaxster Jacob Wohl tried arguing that Harris was ineligible to run due to her immigrant parents. Other right-wing figures shared the false claims on Twitter.
Other conservatives took a slightly different tack in 2019, not accusing Harris of being ineligible but claiming that she was not Black because her heritage is Jamaican-Indian. One tweet on the topic, by a Black conservative political operative who sometimes works with Wohl, saw massive spread across Twitter after it was retweeted by a network of bot accounts—and by Donald Trump Jr.
“Is this true?” Trump Jr. wrote, quote-tweeting the claim. “Wow.”
He later deleted the tweet about Harris’ ethnicity, with a spokesperson stating that people “misconstru[ed] the intent of his tweet.”
“Don’s tweet was simply him asking if it’s true that Kamala Harris was half-Indian because it’s not something he had ever heard before,” the spokesperson said.