Sounds like there was a campaign huddle at some point between Thursday and yesterday because everyone from Trump on down is now eager to communicate that they want no part of this subject.
Three days ago the president was asked about the op-ed in Newsweek by law prof John Eastman questioning whether Harris is a natural-born citizen since her parents weren’t American citizens themselves when she was born. Trump took no position on the issue but did endorse the author, praising Eastman as a “very talented” lawyer. That made it sound like he was trying to promote the theory without fully committing to it.
Yesterday he was asked about it again and again praised Eastman, but this time he was clearer. No, he won’t be challenging Harris’s eligibility.
REPORTER: Will you say Kamala Harris is eligible to run and be vice president based on the fact she was born in Oakland?
TRUMP: “So, I have nothing to do with that. I read something about it … it’s not something that bothers me.” pic.twitter.com/Oq3CCluSvn
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 15, 2020
Note that he still took no position on the merits of Eastman’s claim. That appears to be the new party line within Team Trump: They’re not going to risk pissing off Trumpers by vouching for Harris but they’re also not going to risk pissing off suburbanites by going full Birther on her. That’s actually an old M.O. for Trump, who made himself a player in Republican politics in 2011 by pushing innuendo about Obama’s birth certificate and then reversed himself five years later, less than two months before the election, in order to seem more grown-up to swing voters. When he’s looking to get a leg up among Republicans, ahead of a primary, he’ll go full Birther. (Ask Ted Cruz.) When he has a general election to win and voters in the center to impress, suddenly he’s more sober.
Chief of staff Mark Meadows and campaign spokesman Jason Miller were on today’s Sunday shows and were each asked about Trump’s comments on Thursday, naturally. They followed the script, disclaiming any interest in Harris’s eligibility and grumbling about the media’s pursuit of the issue while trying not to vouch for Harris’s natural-born status — although, through sheer persistence, Jake Tapper did finally badger Meadows into saying that yes, she’s eligible.
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) August 16, 2020
.@GStephanopoulos: Why can’t President Trump clearly, unequivocally say Kamala Harris is eligible to run?
As Trump fans false, racist birther theory, Jason Miller says campaign believes Harris is eligible: “In our opinion it is case closed, end of story.” https://t.co/2ABKsXMlfb pic.twitter.com/pgNoDtW53W
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) August 16, 2020
As a congressional candidate in North Carolina in 2011, Meadows once promised voters that “2012 is the time that we’re going to send Mr. Obama home to Kenya or wherever it is.” Trump advisor Steve Cortes was also on TV this morning and was pressed by Chris Wallace to take a position on whether Harris was eligible or not. Cortes refused, again insisting that the campaign won’t litigate the issue:
“I’m just going to press it one more time,” the host said. “You can accuse me of being one of those media people. Why not say it’s wrong, she is eligible? It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m not going to pursue it.’ It’s a different thing to say, ‘It’s flat wrong, she’s eligible to be the vice president.’ Why doesn’t he say that?”
“I don’t know why it’s incumbent upon him to opine on legal scholarship of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment,” Cortes said in response.. “I don’t think that’s his place as president. What he is saying is, we have not made an issue of this, we will not make an issue of this. It’s a non-starter from our point of view, for the president and for the campaign.”
What makes Harris’s eligibility more tricky for Team Trump than Obama’s or Cruz’s situation is that no one disputes that she was born in the United States. In order to make a case against her, the president would necessarily have to argue that all so-called “anchor babies” who currently enjoy American citizenship should have that citizenship rescinded on grounds that they weren’t “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States when they were born. Some border hawks would be thrilled, but doing that in the home stretch of a presidential election — when millions of those same anchor babies are poised to vote — would be insanity, a gambit which might cost Trump the election no matter how it turned out. If he sued and lost, with Harris’s eligibility upheld (or, more likely, with SCOTUS declining to rule), he’d have gained nothing except pissing off those anchor-baby voters. If he sued and won, with Harris kicked off the ballot and millions of people suddenly at risk of losing their citizenship, there’s no telling what the backlash might look like among the rest of the electorate.
In a no-win situation, the only correct move is not to play. So that’s what Team Trump is doing.
In fact, the politics of this issue may be sufficiently favorable to Democrats that Harris herself might try to go on offense over her eligibility:
Responding to the conspiracy theory, Harris, a California senator and former presidential candidate, said in an interview released Sunday that Trump and his campaign will “engage in lies” and “deception” during the election.
“They’re going to engage in an attempt to distract from the real issues that are impacting the American people. And I expect that they will engage in dirty tactics. And this is going to be a knockdown, drag-out. And we’re ready,” Harris told media outlet TheGrio when asked how Trump promoting birther conspiracies signals the tactics his campaign will use.
Relatedly, read this interesting Politico piece about the West Indian diaspora in Florida that’s excited about seeing an American of Jamaican ancestry on the national ticket. That group could be significant in a state with margins as narrow as Florida’s traditionally are, and they might be irritated by an attempt to challenge Harris’s authenticity as an American. (As might the sizable contingent of Indian-Americans across the 50 states.) There’s simply far more to lose for Trump by chasing this angle of attack against Harris then there is to gain, so for once he seems to be exercising a bit of judicious restraint from which he’ll ultimately benefit.
And I do mean “for once.” Here’s his latest brain fart on Twitter, one that’s already causing a fuss among the media. He really does behave at times as though he’s the president of only America’s red states.
“Leave Democrat cities. Let them rot.”
This is from the commander-in-chief, the President of the United States, further confirming that we are presently in a cold civil war. pic.twitter.com/1BVpYfA51O
— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) August 16, 2020