Aug 13, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump campaign official pushes baseless Newsweek op-ed claiming Harris may not be VP-eligible

Photo: Olivier Douilery/AFP via Getty Images

Trump campaign senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis on Thursday shared a Newsweek op-ed that baselessly claims Sen. Kamala Harris may be ineligible for the vice presidency because both of her parents were not naturalized citizens at her birth.

Why it matters: Harris was born in Oakland, Calif. She is an American citizen and is eligible for the office. Critics, including many Republicans, denounced the piece as a new attempt at "birtherism" — the conspiracy theory that President Obama was not actually born in the U.S. — targeting the first woman of color on a presidential ticket.

  • The op-ed, penned by conservative law professor John Eastman and published Wednesday, argues that Harris might not be considered a natural-born citizen because a clause in the 14th Amendment — "and subject to the jurisdiction thereof [the U.S.]" — could preclude her given her parents' citizenship.
  • Eastman's view on birthright citizenship and presidential eligibility is not accepted by constitutional law scholars.

The state of play: Ellis doubled down on her retweet, telling ABC News' Will Steakin that she believes Harris' citizenship is "an open question, and one I think Harris should answer so the American people know for sure she is eligible."

Worth noting: In January 2016, Eastman argued in the National Review that doubts about the presidential eligibility of Sen. Ted Cruz, born in Canada to an American mother, were "downright silly."

  • "No serious constitutional scholar adheres to the view that the meaning of the 'natural-born citizen' requirement contained in ... the Constitution applies only to people born on American soil," he wrote.
  • President Trump, then campaigning against Cruz, was one of the first to push the idea of his ineligibility. He was also a key proponent of the birtherism theory.

What they're saying: Conservative blogger Erick Erickson tweeted in response to the op-ed that people can "get ready for a whole new round of birtherism, and it'll be as stupid as the first time."

  • Republican pollster Frank Luntz simply reiterated that Harris was born in Oakland.
  • "[I]t’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," said Biden campaign rapid response director Andrew Bates.

The big picture: The criticism forced Newsweek to issue an editor's note about the column on Thursday, saying it "has nothing to do with racist birtherism."

  • Newsweek's global editor-in-chief Nancy Cooper and opinion editor Josh Hammer argued that Eastman's piece was premised on "issues of legal interpretation about which scholars and commentators can, and will, robustly disagree."

The bottom line: Ellis' promotion of the op-ed suggests a willingness by the president and his supporters to use baseless or unsavory arguments to try to undermine the legitimacy of the Biden ticket — all as Trump lags Biden in the polls with 82 days until Election Day.

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