By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday transformed a White House ceremony to honor Navajo veterans of World War II into a racially charged controversy, using the event as a platform to deride Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as “Pocahontas.”
Standing in the Oval Office alongside three Navajo code talkers, whom he called “very, very special people,” Trump dispensed with his prepared remarks and took aim at Warren without naming her, resurrecting a favorite nickname as the veterans stood stonefaced.
“You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said to the veterans, ages 90 and older, who wore their military uniforms for the occasion, juxtaposed with turquoise and silver, hallmarks of Navajo culture. “Although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”
He made the remarks while standing in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson – a favorite of Trump’s – who served as the nation’s seventh president and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which resulted in the mass displacement and deaths of Native Americans often referred to as the Trail of Tears.
The comment made for an awkward moment during an otherwise uplifting event, organized to pay tribute to the contributions of the young Native Americans recruited by the U.S. military to create top-secret coded messages used to communicate during battles. And it was the latest instance of a president who relishes any opportunity to land a hit against a political opponent, veering sharply off-script with divisive speech and quickly setting off a furor.
Trump was referring, as he often has, to Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor who came under fire in 2012 after it emerged that, during her academic career, she identified herself as a minority, citing Native American roots.
The comment drew swift rebukes from Native American leaders, including one who was present for the ceremony. Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation, called the president’s mention of Pocahontas “derogatory” and “disrespectful to Indian nations.”
“This is something that unfortunately came up during the campaign and it seems to have stuck in the mind of the president, something that he continues to use, to take a jab at the senator,” Begaye said in an interview. “The campaign is over. The nation needs to move forward, and using Native Americans in this way, in this type of honoring setting is something that should not be happening.”
Warren said the episode reflected the president’s penchant for racial slurs.
“This was a ceremony to honor war heroes: Native Americans who had put it all on the line to protect our country and to save the lives of Americans and our allies,” Warren said in an interview.
“It should have been a celebration of their incredible service, but Donald Trump couldn’t make it through without tossing in a racial slur.”
The White House rejected that characterization – “a ridiculous response,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary – and defended the remark.
“What most people find offensive is Sen. Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career,” Sanders told reporters shortly after the ceremony.
The Republican Party also rushed to the president’s defense, calling Trump’s comment a “joke,” and circulating talking points to reporters that said that Warren “lied about her ancestry for years,” and has never provided proof that she is of Native American descent.
Warren called the White House’s response “alternative facts.”
“He knows it’s not true, but he doesn’t care,” she said. “He says this because he thinks he can shut me up. It hasn’t worked before, and it won’t work now.”
It was not clear why Trump chose to target Warren for ridicule, although she has figured prominently in a dispute unfolding this week over the leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she helped create, and had been conducting TV interviews on the subject.
But for Native American leaders who had worked behind the scenes with the White House to organize the ceremony, Trump’s off-topic remark reopened painful wounds.
“For Indian Country, which has a very high level of participation in the military and veterans’ service, it was a real honor to be at that event today,” said Jacqueline Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, “and it is unfortunate that it was used as an opportunity to once again try to use the word Pocahontas in a negative way towards a political adversary.”
The group issued a statement in May after Trump referred to Warren as Pocahontas at a National Rifle Association gathering, calling it a “pejorative term” that insulted native people and degraded their cultures. Members of the National Congress of American Indians said at the time that with the election over, they hoped that the remark was a “momentary slip-up” that would not be repeated by the president.
During the campaign, Trump’s use of Pocahontas also drew objections from a number of Native Americans, many of whom regarded the reference as offensive and divisive.
On Monday, Debra Haaland, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New Mexico who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, quickly seized on the episode to condemn Trump and raise money for her campaign.
“I can’t begin to express how angered I am by the display of ignorance in our White House today,” Haaland wrote in a fundraising email. “The president’s actions disgrace the history of Pocahontas, Native Americans, Navajo code talkers and all Native American veterans who served and died for this country.”