“Mr President,” a reporter asked on Thursday. “After three and a half years, do you regret, at all, all the lying you’ve done to the American people?”
A disbelieving Trump asked: “All the what?”
The question was repeated and the US president refused to answer. His political career began with a big lie: birtherism, the baseless fantasy that Barack Obama was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for the White House.
It may now be nearing its end with another false and racist conspiracy theory, which he encouraged at the same Thursday briefing. This one questions Kamala Harris’s eligibility to be vice president.
Harris was this week named as Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s running mate for the 2020 election – the first woman of colour on a major party ticket. She was born in Oakland, California, and is eligible for both the vice presidency and presidency under the US constitution.
John Eastman, a conservative lawyer, wrote an op-ed in Newsweek arguing that the constitution does not grant birthright citizenship and challenging Harris’s eligibility based on her parents’ immigration status.
When Trump was asked about it at Thursday’s White House press briefing, he gave a characteristically vague answer that could sow doubt in the minds of supporters inclined to believe the worst: “So, I just heard that. I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements. And, by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer.”
He added: “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.”
The 14th amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio, told the Associated Press: “No, there’s no question about it. It’s been recognized since the people drafted it back in the 39th Congress that (the 14th) amendment would cover people not just born to American citizens but born on American soil.”
Trump’s feigned ignorance is true to form for someone with a track record of racist and anti-immigrant stances. In 1973, he and his father were sued by the justice department for racial discrimination because prospective Black tenants were blocked from renting in their buildings.
Trump was a high-profile champion of the so-called “birther movement” that questioned whether Obama, the first African American president, was born in the US and eligible to serve. Obama, born in Hawaii, produced his birth certificate to prove it, and eventually even Trump said he accepted the truth.
Harris’s father was born in Jamaica and mother born in India. Under the constitution, anyone born in the US automatically acquires citizenship, irrespective of their parents’ immigration status.
Trump’s shameless fanning of the conspiracy flames came in the context of a predictably ferocious onslaught of racist and sexist attacks on Harris by the president his supporters in rightwing media.
“Sort of a madwoman, I call her, because she was so angry and such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump told the Fox Business network.
Republican Senator John Kennedy told the same network: “I would describe her as Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez but smarter without the bartending experience.”
Deroy Murdock, a Fox News contributor, said: “She seems to come across as a bit abrasive, as the president mentioned. I don’t know if she can warm things up and be a little more charming.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson pronounced Harris’s first name wrongly several times on Tuesday night, When a guest corrected him, Carlson snapped “So what?” and then twice mispronounced her name again.
On Twitter, Trump’s son Eric favourited a tweet that referred to Harris as a “whorendous pick”; the tweet was later deleted.
The blitz suggested an election campaign moving into a new and dangerous phase. With Trump and his Republican allies trailing in the polls and struggling to define Harris, there is no limit how low they will go. Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist and critic of the president, has just published a book about the party’s descent into Trumpism. Its title? It Was All a Lie.