Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is defending her decision to release a DNA test and political ad asserting she has a distant Native American ancestor — even as the Cherokee Nation condemns her for it, Republicans mock her, and political analysts wonder if she has crippled any hopes she had of competing in the 2020 presidential election.
“Donald Trump goes in front of crowds multiple times a week to attack me,” Warren told members of the Boston Globe editorial board Tuesday, referring to the president’s relentless mockery of a six-year-old accusation that the senator used to identify as a Native American at law school in the 1990s.
“I got this analysis back, and I made it public,” Warren continued, the newspaper reported. “How do you sit here if you know what it is, and people ask, and you don’t give an answer?”
Warren released the DNA test widely Monday — suggesting she had at least one indigenous ancestor, most likely in the 19th century — along with a folksy campaign video that retold a vague family story about a Native American on her mother’s side.
At least some people outside Warren’s campaign thought this was good politics, recasting Republican attacks on the senator’s honesty as racist attacks on her ethnicity. “The Democratic senator’s DNA test wasn’t a mere rebuttal of Trump,” Jonathan Bernstein wrote in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News, for example. “It also shows she’s a presidential contender.”
But a backlash against Warren also swelled within hours, led at first by prominent Native Americans who accused her of attempting to appropriate indigenous ancestry for political points.
“Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. wrote the next day. Blackfeet Nation member Gyasi Ross told MSNBC that Warren was now as guilty as Trump of “making indigenous ancestry into a campaign prop.”
Trump simply doubled down attacks he’d been making for years, simultaneously belittling Warren and Native Americans. “Pocahontas (the bad version), sometimes referred to as Elizabeth Warren, is getting slammed,” he wrote on Twitter. “… Now Cherokee Nation denies her, ‘DNA test is useless.’ Even they don’t want her. Phony!”
By Wednesday, mainstream pundits had overwhelmingly turned against Warren.
“More than ninety-five percent of her genome comes from Europe,” Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker. “The woman who is hoping to become the most progressive Democratic nominee in generations is not merely letting herself get jerked around by a Trumpian taunt. She is also reinforcing one of the most insidious ways in which Americans talk about race: as though it were a measurable biological category, one that, in some cases, can be determined by a single drop of blood.”
“If Warren thought that this video and DNA test would shut Trump up, she was dangerously mistaken,” opined CNN’s Chris Cillizza.
In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank was particularly discouraged that by relying on a DNA test — not to mention one with such inconclusive results — she had accepted a dare Trump once made on the campaign trail.
“She took Trump’s DNA-test dare and let him divide us — again — by race and ethnicity,” he wrote. “Just as he did when he goaded President Barack Obama to prove his legitimacy by producing his birth certificate.”
For her part, even if her attempt to end the public discussion of her background has had the opposite effect, Warren is at least using the opportunity to clarify the remarks that first got her into this mess — back in law school.
“There’s a distinction between [tribal] citizenship and ancestry,” she told the Globe on Tuesday. “I’m not a citizen, never have claimed to be, and I wish I had been more mindful of that 30 years ago.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the DNA test suggested Warren’s genome was as much as 1/64th Native American. This was based on a misunderstanding of the results.