In a move that reeked of the birtherism, racism, and xenophobia that helped elevate him to office, President Donald Trump on Thursday said he’s “heard” that Sen. Kamala Harris may not “meet the requirements” to appear on the Democratic presidential ticket and vowed to “take a look” at the claim when someone asked the president if Harris is somehow not a natural born citizen.
Rather than immediately shutting down the birther conspiracy theory that erupted in the wake of Joe Biden’s pick of Harris as his VP, Trump appeared to lean into the baseless rumor when asked about it by a reporter at Thursday’s press briefing.
“I have no idea if that's right, I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president," Trump said “But that's a very serious... you're saying that they're saying that she doesn't qualify because she wasn't born in this country?”
Trump admitted he had no idea if the claim he was being asked about over the senator’s background was accurate before rambling on to say, “I just heard about it, I'll take a look." He went on to praise the lawyer who first put forward the birther claims about Harris as “highly qualified” and “very talented.”
The questions about Harris are without merit. But the California Democrat, who had one parent come to the United States from India and the other from Jamaica, is already facing the same kind of racism that Trump elevated about former President Barack Obama during the Democrat’s time in office.
In a fact check earlier this week, The Associated Press thoroughly debunked the conspiracy charge being leveled at Harris, citing her being born in Oakland, California.
After Trump’s comments, communications officials with Biden’s campaign pointed to a statement they had made earlier in the day as the same line gained oxygen on the right.
“Donald Trump was the national leader of the grotesque, racist birther movement with respect to President Obama and has sought to fuel racism and tear our nation apart on every single day of his presidency,” Biden campaign rapid response director Andrew Bates said. “So it's unsurprising, but no less abhorrent, that as Trump makes a fool of himself straining to distract the American people from the horrific toll of his failed coronavirus response that his campaign and their allies would resort to wretched, demonstrably false lies in their pathetic desperation.”
Around a minute into the briefing Thursday, Trump used the opportunity to level a series of attacks on Joe Biden as his own administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic faces withering attacks from the newly announced Democratic presidential ticket.
And in the process, he mangled his own messaging on masks, the crucial public health measure he took months to practice himself despite his own administration encouraging the public to don masks in public since early April.
Earlier Thursday, the day after Biden appeared with Harris for the first time as a pair, both Democrats pushed for what would amount to a mask mandate across the country for three months. Biden urged governors to do the same thing. Harris used her introduction as the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee Wednesday to eviscerate the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
At a time where one could hope the president would be using his platform to educate the American public about the pandemic that has killed more than 166,000 in the country, and on the same day the U.S. reported the most COVID-related fatalities since May, the first part of the briefing was filled with jabs and attacks at his political rival.
“He does not identify what authority the president has to issue such a mandate or how federal law enforcement could possibly enforce it or why we would be stepping on governors throughout our country, many of whom have done a very good job and they know what is needed,” Trump said.
Even some Republican governors in the United States have issued statewide mask orders because of the deadly nature of the virus, but others have shunned the move despite the clear public health benefit as the nation’s death toll continues to climb.
While Trump scoffed at Biden’s call for a mask mandate—dismissing the idea of a president having the “unilateral power” to order citizens to wear masks—the president himself has at least on one occasion claimed to have absolute authority in terms of other government bodies during the pandemic.
That pivotal moment came in April when he declared “when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that is the way it’s gonna be. It’s total. It’s total. And the governors know that,” over states reopening decisions, though he later backed off from that aggressive rhetorical approach.
And by the end of May, Trump demanded places of worship be opened, championing that he would override governors if they didn’t follow along.
And on Thursday, citing the importance of Americans having “freedom” as a reason not to impose a nationwide mask order, Trump touted that his own administration is urging people to wear masks as “a patriotic thing to do.”
"Maybe they're great and maybe they're just good, maybe they're not so good, but frankly what do you have to lose? You have nothing to lose," Trump said.
-- With additional reporting from Hanna Trudo