President Trump on Monday referred to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as “Pocahontas” at an event honoring Native Americans who helped the U.S. Marine Corps develop a secret code during World War II.
"You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said, “Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”
This was not the first time that Trump referred to Warren by that derisive nickname. He’s repeatedly called her “Pocahontas” to make fun of her claim of Native American heritage. Trump clearly sees Warren as a rival—a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2020 whose populist message and up-from-adversity life story could threaten Trump’s re-election chances.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s slur, explaining, “I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career.”
In fact, Warren never lied about nor benefited—in applying to colleges or jobs—from her ancestry. Trump, in contrast, has repeatedly lied about his background and his path to wealth and power.
Warren grew up in Oklahoma, the daughter of parents who were constantly on the brink of economic hardship. In her autobiography, A Fighting Chance, she describes her family as teetering “on the ragged edge of the middle class” and “kind of hanging on at the edges by our fingernails.”
After her father, a salesman at a Montgomery Ward department store, had a heart attack, the company cut his pay. With mounting medical bills, the family fell off the economic cliff. Unable to make the loan payments, they lost their car. Her mother found a job in the catalog order department at Sears. The 13-year-old Elizabeth began waiting on tables to help the family make ends meet.
An outstanding high school debater, she earned a scholarship to George Washington University, but left after two years to marry her high school boyfriend, Jim Warren. After they moved to Houston so he could work for IBM, Warren went back to college in 1970 and graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in speech pathology and audiology.
After they moved to New Jersey for her husband’s job, Warren—the mother of a two-year old—enrolled in Rutgers Law School. By the time she passed the bar she’d had her second child. To balance childrearing and making a living, she practiced law from her home.
The couple divorced in 1978. As her children grew older, and she remarried, Warren taught law at several universities throughout the country, while becoming an expert on bankruptcy and the financial problems facing middle class families. She taught at Rutgers, the University of Houston, the University of Texas, and the University of Pennsylvania before being recruited by Harvard Law School in 1995.
The question of Warren’s ancestry emerged during Warren’s campaign for the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts in 2012 when her opponent—incumbent Republican Scott Brown—said that she’d falsely claimed to be a Native American when she filled out employment forms at Harvard, thus taking advantage of affirmative action to secure the position.
Warren said that when she was growing up her mother frequently talked about her Native American heritage. “I knew my father's family didn't like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware, so they had to elope,” Warren explained in response to Brown’s allegations.
It is possible that Warren’s mother was mistaken, but research by the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered that several members of Warren's maternal family claimed Cherokee heritage. Warren's great-great-great grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith was described as Cherokee in an 1894 marriage license application.
Even so, Warren never used her Native American ancestry to get a job.
“Let me be clear: I never asked for or never got any benefit because of my heritage,” she said during the 2012 campaign. “The people who hired me have all said they didn't even know about it.” She’s right.
Warren listed herself as “White” when she applied for her job at the University of Texas. It isn’t clear how she described herself when she taught at the University of Pennsylvania, but at some point she was listed as Native American in the faculty directory of the Association of American Law Schools.
Harvard law School Professor Charles Fried, a conservative who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General, headed the appointments committee when Harvard recruited her. Fried told the Boston Herald that the subject of her heritage never came up and “simply played no role in the appointments process.”
In contrast to Warren’s up-from-adversity life, Trump was born into wealth and used his family connections to get into college and expand his father’s real estate empire.
During an impromptu news conference outside the White House in October, Trump told reporters—who hadn’t asked him about his education—“You know, people don’t understand. I went to an Ivy League college. I was a nice student. I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.”
Throughout his career, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he’s both well-educated and brainy. Each time, it isn’t clear if he’s trying to convince his interviewers or himself.
In a 2004 interview with CNN, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I got very good marks. I was a good student. It’s the best business school in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”
During a 2011 interview with ABC, Trump said: “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country.”
On May 8, 2013, Trump tweeted: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest—and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.”
During a speech in Phoenix in July 2015, a month after announcing he was running for president, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I’m, like, a really smart person.”
The next month, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump described Wharton as “probably the hardest there is to get into.” He added, “Some of the great business minds in the world have gone to Wharton.” He also observed: “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time. The super genius of all time.”
Last December, Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace why he intended to be the first president since Harry Truman to avoid getting daily updates from intelligence professionals about national security threats. “I’m, like, a smart person,” he explained.
The day after his inauguration, Trump’s handlers staged a visit to CIA headquarters to divert media attention away from the 750,000 Americans who had come to Washington, D.C., that day to protest Trump’s presidency. But Trump’s scripted remarks turned into an impulsive rambling rant, during which he felt the need to tell the nation’s top spies that was a bright guy: “Trust me,” he said, “I’m, like, a smart person.”
Anyone who feels compelled to boast how smart he is clearly suffers from a profound insecurity about his intelligence and accomplishments. In Trump’s case, he has good reason to have doubts.
Trump’s father Fred built a vast real-estate empire by building middle-class housing subsidized by the federal government. To teach Donald to take responsibility, his father insisted that he have a paper route, but in bad weather Fred allowed him to make deliveries via chauffeured limo.
Trump transferred into the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham University in New York, where he had no significant achievements.
“No one I know of has said, ‘I remember Donald Trump,’” Paul F. Gerken, a 1968 Fordham graduate and president of the Fordham College Alumni Association, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Whatever he did at Fordham, he didn’t leave footprints.”
According to Gwenda Blair’s 2001 biography, The Trumps, Trump’s grades at Fordham were not good enough to qualify him for a transfer to Wharton. Trump got into Wharton as a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer with ties to his family.
In two profiles of Trump in the 1970s, The New York Times reported that Trump “graduated first in his class” at Wharton in 1968. Trump was most likely the source of that falsehood. In fact, he didn’t even make the dean’s list, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper. He has refused to release his college grade transcripts.
Trump is particularly sensitive about his business career. After college, Trump’s multimillionaire father handed young Donald the keys to his real-estate empire. Trump has sought to portray himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps self-made entrepreneur. “It has not been easy for me,” Trump said at a town hall meeting on October 26, 2015. But an investigation last year by The Washington Post revealed that not only did Trump’s father provide him with a huge inheritance and set up trust accounts to provide his son with a steady income, he also helped finance Trump’s first real-estate projects.
According to the Post: “Trump’s father—whose name had been besmirched in New York real-estate circles after investigations into windfall profits and other abuses in his real-estate projects—was an essential silent partner in Trump’s initiative. In effect, the son was the front man, relying on his father’s connections and wealth, while his father stood silently in the background to avoid drawing attention to himself.”
As a businessman, Trump is known for his bogus enterprises (like Trump University), his repeated rip-offs of suppliers, contractors, and employees, and his wild exaggerations of the size of his wealth. At least six of Trump’s businesses have gone bankrupt, but on April 18, 2015, he tweeted this falsehood: “For all of the haters and losers out there sorry, I never went Bankrupt.”
Warren, who is up for re-election next year, has been one of Trump’s most persistent critics. During his presidential campaign last year, she portrayed him as a dishonest, greedy billionaire, drawing on his comments about the victims of the 2008 financial meltdown.
“What kind of a man roots for people to get thrown out of their houses? What kind of a man roots for people to get thrown out of their jobs?” Warren said.
“I'll tell you exactly what kind of a man does that,” she continued. “It is a man who cares about no one but himself. A small, insecure, money-grubber who doesn't care who gets hurt, so long as he makes a profit off it.”
Trump is likely to continue his "Pocahantas" jabs at Warren. It is both a racist slur and an effort to discredit her as a women and a likely Democratic presidential contender for 2020. But it is also part of Trump's efforts to do the banking industry's bidding by trying to dismantle Warren's signature accomplishment, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a part of the Dodd-Frank reforms designed to keep Wall Street in check.
After Warren's protégé Richard Cordray resigned from his post as CFPB's executive director, Trump last week appointed his budget director Mike Mulvaney—who voted to repeal the agency when he was in Congress—as its acting director. Trump knew what he was doing. Had he sought to appoint a permanent director, the nominee would have faced Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearings, featuring tough questions from Warren. Clearly, the president wasn't eager for another public showdown with Wall Street's biggest foe.