The “code talkers” were Native American soldiers who were deployed during the world wars to send messages between units using a nearly uncrackable code: their native languages. During World War II, Navajo men were recruited by the Marines and served in the Pacific theater, aiding in the defeat of the Japanese army. Their story has become well known, including being featured in a 2002 film.
On Monday, President Trump welcomed three of the 13 surviving veterans of the “code talker” program to the White House for an event honoring their service. Peter MacDonald, one of those survivors and a former chairman of the Navajo Nation, gave a speech describing his and his friends’ service and the losses their unit and the American forces incurred.
When he was done, Trump took the microphone.
“That was so incredible, and now I don’t have to make my speech,” Trump said. “I had the most beautiful speech written out. I was so proud of it.” Instead, he closed the binder containing his speech and handed it to MacDonald. “I know you like me,” Trump added, “so I know you’ll save it.”
Then, speaking from the cuff, Trump made reference to his favorite insult of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“You were here long before any of us were here. Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her ‘Pocahontas,’ ” he said with a chuckle. “But you know what? I like you.” The audience was quiet.
Trump’s pejorative use of “Pocahontas” originates from Warren’s having in the past claimed to have Native American heritage, a claim that has never been validated. The unproven assertion was used as a point of attack against Warren during her 2012 race against Scott Brown and was revived last year during Trump’s campaign for the presidency.
(He first tweeted the expression in 2014.)
Warren has been a consistent critic of Trump’s and, prior to joining the Senate, was one of the key advocates for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That agency has been at the center of a fight over the past several days as Trump tries to overhaul it. Warren criticized Trump’s efforts in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday.
Unsurprisingly, many Native Americans have taken offense at Trump’s use of Pocahontas’s name to disparage a political opponent. So, too, have many Republicans. When Trump used the expression in 2016, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) expressed his disdain.
“It’s neither appropriate personally toward her, and frankly, it offends a much larger group of people,” Cole said at the time. “So I wish he would avoid that.” Instead, Trump not only used it Monday, but also did so after explicitly mentioning that MacDonald’s “great friend” Tom Cole was in the audience.
In an interview on MSNBC shortly after Trump’s comments, Warren responded.
“It is deeply unfortunate,” she said, “that the president of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur.”
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Warren’s reply a “ridiculous response.”
“I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career,” Sanders said. (Our fact-checkers didn’t find documented evidence that Warren had been advantaged by the claim.)
This is hardly Trump’s only questionable comment about Native Americans. In 1993, Trump appeared at a congressional hearing held by the Native American Affairs Committee.
Trump was presented with past questionable comments about Native Americans by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).
MILLER: Is this you, discussing Indian blood: “We’re going to judge people by whether they have Indian blood whether they’re qualified to run a casino or not?”
TRUMP: That probably is me, absolutely. Because I’ll tell you what. If you look, if you look at some of the reservations that you’ve approved, that you, sir, in your great wisdom have approved, I will tell you right now — they don’t look like Indians to me. And they don’t look like the Indians . . . Now, maybe we say politically correct or not politically correct, they don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians to Indians.
The “code talkers” were invited to the White House as part of National Native American Heritage Month, proclaimed by Trump on Oct. 31.
“Native Americans are a testament to the deep importance of culture and vibrancy of traditions, passed down throughout generations,” that proclamation read. “This month, I encourage all of our citizens to learn about the rich history and culture of the Native American people.”
“Together,” it read, “we will strengthen the relationship between the United States Government and Native Americans.”