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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, eyeing 2020 White House bid, fights back against Trump's 'Pocahontas' taunts

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, eyeing 2020 White House bid, fights back against Trump's 'Pocahontas' taunts
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is considering a White House run, visits her Oklahoma City high school last month. (Noah Bierman / Los Angeles Times)

After years of enduring “Pocahontas” gibes from President Trump, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has begun playing offense, trying to turn their scrap over her ancestry claims into a weapon as she gears up for a possible presidential run against him.

On Monday, the Massachusetts Democrat not only released DNA test results showing that she likely has trace Native American heritage, along with a stinging video in which her brothers defend the family lore, but also demanded that Trump now make good on his suggestion he’d pay $1 million to charity if she took the test.

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While Trump’s offer was never firm — he joked at a summer rally that if Warren ran for president, he would toss her a DNA test kit at a debate and donate to the charity of her choice if she took it — her bid to call his bluff with her own tweeted barbs shows her intention to try to match his attention-grabbing theatrics.

Warren’s latest tack reflects a belief among some Democrats that the best defense against Trump is an aggressive counteroffensive, underscoring how the former reality TV star has reset the terms of engagement. More particularly, it demonstrates the extent to which Warren has started openly pursuing her 2020 agenda, even as many Democrats want to keep the focus on next month’s elections, with control of Congress and governors’ offices at stake.

“Trump can say whatever he wants about me, but mocking Native Americans or any group in order to try to get at me, that’s not what America stands for,” Warren says in the video, which includes footage of Trump calling her “Pocahontas” — a moniker that tribal groups have said is racist — and of a Trump surrogate at a rally patting his hand against his mouth in a mock American Indian war whoop.

Warren, who had resisted requests for a DNA test since the heritage issue surfaced in her 2012 Senate race, tweeted Monday that she wants Trump’s donation to go to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.

Asked about it by White House reporters, Trump denied making the $1 million offer and dismissed Warren’s test with a “Who cares?” As he has before, he touted her as a Democrat he wants to face for his reelection race.

The president later denied he owes Warren an apology: “I owe her? She owes the country an apology. What’s the percentage, 1/1000th?”

Warren’s efforts to reclaim her past, and to showcase her combativeness , accelerated in recent months as she’s made other moves toward a presidential run.

Late last month, just before announcing she would take a “hard look at running for president,” Warren returned to her high school in Oklahoma City to deliver her first public speech in her hometown since she was elected to the Senate. Her theme was a familiar one about fighting villains: billionaires, giant corporations, hungry politicians and their rigged system.

Warren’s modest upbringing here among Oklahoma’s oil derricks and rural flatlands is the source of her connection to the heartland’s working-class voters and a potential selling point in a national campaign. Yet her personal story has been clouded by the controversy that erupted during her 2012 Senate race over her undocumented claims to Native American ancestry.

“Yeah, we got a fight on our hands,” she told her audience, slipping into a stronger Southern accent as she stirred a mostly female crowd that was already on its feet. “A tough fight.”

“And here’s the deal,” she continued. “They have more money than we do. They already run big chunks of government. But here’s the thing I want you to think about: There’s a whole lot more of us than there is of them.”

This was the Warren who many liberals were clamoring to see on the presidential stump in 2016, a Democrat who would go to the country’s deep-red middle and sell her progressive version of prairie populism. Instead, Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernie Sanders swooped in to capture the party’s left while Trump claimed populism for the right.

Her visit, to speak at a rollicking rally sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, was an opportunity to seize upon progressives’ excitement following a nine-day strike this spring. Here within the white and purple brick walls of the cafetorium at Northwest Classen High School, where Warren was known as “Liz” to her classmates a half-century ago, she now shouted, “Hello Okies!”

She recalled the high school debate team that taught her how to argue. While students at the public high school were known as “silkies” because they came from the fancy part of town, Warren has said her family struggled along the “ragged edge of the middle class,” fearful of losing their home after her father’s a heart attack.

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Among the gifts collected by her aides was a patterned blanket that came, they said, from the governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.

The DNA results showed her Native American ancestry to be from 1/64th to 1/1024th, depending on how many generations it went back — a level that is likely to keep the controversy festering among Warren detractors, as Trump showed.

DNA tests for Native ancestry tend to be less accurate than for other groups because of relatively limited data from Native populations. The Cherokee Nation criticized Warren, who is not enrolled in a tribe, saying in a statement that she is “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

Recently, Warren gave the Boston Globe extensive personnel records. The newspaper, after also interviewing dozens of people involved in hiring decisions throughout her career, concluded last month that her ethnicity claims played no role in her getting jobs at various law schools, including Harvard University.

She also has released 10 years of income tax returns, a rejoinder to Trump’s failure to release his. And Warren has taken steps to help Democrats around the country, donating to every state party committee while speaking for candidates in competitive elections.

Yet she has at times rankled fellow Democrats. Earlier this year, she went after politically vulnerable colleagues who voted with Republicans to roll back provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law enacted after the 2008-09 financial crisis. In 2014, she brought the government to the brink of a shutdown over a similar issue, before relenting.

“I’ve gone out and worked for the team, and I’ll continue to do that,” Warren said in an interview. “But at the same time, I’m going to fight hard for what I believe in. It’s not good for American families when Wall Street calls the shots in Washington.”

Warren would loom large in a fierce presidential primary debate between those, like her, who want to move the party to the left and those who believe they can peel off Republican moderates and even some Trump supporters with a more centrist message.

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“If we get more people to turn out and vote, we win,” Warren said. “This is all about giving people a reason to turn out, a reason to get in the fight, a reason to knock on doors, a reason to run for office, a reason to drag your friends and your family and your neighbors and your co-workers down to the polls on election day.”

She harnesses the anti-Trump anger on the left to bolster her argument for a more activist party: “There’s no more, you know, ‘You’re a good citizen because once every two years you show up there and vote.’ Nope. Citizenship in the Trump era has changed. People are coming off the sidelines saying, ‘My country needs me, and my voice will be heard in Washington.’”

Warren won’t answer whether she should have come off the sidelines in 2016, and whether she might have prevented the same Trump era that she and other Democrats rail against. Yet in a business said to be all about timing, some question whether Warren missed her moment.

Colin Reed, formerly an aide to her 2012 opponent, former Sen. Scott Brown, and leader of an opposition research group that targeted her, said she had improved as a candidate. He gives her credit for influencing her party.

But sometimes, “you only get one chance at this,” he said. “In 2016, she would have had more of the left-wing populist lane to herself, whereas in 2020 she would have to share that lane with Sen. Sanders and slew of other candidates.”

Belying a public image as hard-charging and at times unapproachable, Warren posed for cellphone pictures at her old high school for more than an hour. While supporters expressed excitement about a Warren 2020 run, others wore Sanders shirts — a pink one said “Talk Bernie to me.” A few expressed concerns about Warren’s age and electability.

“I would vote for her, but I think it’s time for us old folks to step aside and let the young crop have a chance,” said Lisa Lunsford, a 58-year-old Oklahoma City banker. She called Warren a hero but approvingly named two other Democratic senators who are prospective candidates — Cory Booker, 49, of New Jersey and Kamala Harris, 53, of San Francisco.

Warren, at 69, is still younger than Trump, 72, as well as Sanders, 77, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 75. But she would certainly be on the older side of what is expected to be a crowded field.

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