WASHINGTON — The plan was straightforward: After years of being challenged by President Donald Trump and others about a decades-old claim of Native American ancestry, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would take a DNA test to prove her stated family origins in the Cherokee and Delaware tribes.
But nearly two months after Warren released the test results and drew hostile reactions from prominent tribal leaders, the lingering cloud over her likely presidential campaign has only darkened. Conservatives have continued to ridicule her. More worrisome to supporters of Warren’s presidential ambitions, she has yet to allay criticism from grassroots progressive groups, liberal political operatives and other potential 2020 allies who complain that she put too much emphasis on the controversial field of racial science — and, in doing so, played into Trump’s hands.
Advisers close to Warren say she has privately expressed concern that she may have damaged her relationships to Native American groups and her own standing with progressive activists, particularly those who are racial minorities. Several outside advisers are even more worried: They say they believe a plan should be made to repair that damage, possibly including a strong statement of apology.
The advisers say Warren will have to confront the issue again if she announces a presidential campaign, which is expected in the coming weeks, and several would like her to act soon.
Publicly, at this point, the senator is not second-guessing her actions.
“There have been a lot of thoughtful conversations about this and I appreciate that,” Warren said in an interview. “I believe for everyone in public life that transparency is crucial.”
Asked if the criticism of the test has inspired any regret, Warren said: “I put it out there. It’s on the internet for anybody to see. People can make of it what they will. I’m going to continue fighting on the issues that brought me to Washington.”
For some Warren allies and progressive groups, Warren’s standing by the DNA test amounts to profoundly poor judgment. Some said she was too reactive to Trump’s attacks — tests results would never silence a president who often disregards facts, they said — and created a distraction from her own trademark message of economic populism. The president revels in repeatedly slurring Warren as “Pocahontas,” and conservative commentators like Howie Carr of the Boston Herald have enjoyed holding the DNA issue over the senator’s head.
“The biggest risk in engaging a bully is that bullies don’t usually stop, regardless of what the truth is,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director for the progressive political group Democracy for America. Chamberlain’s group had, in 2014, launched a “Run Warren Run” campaign to encourage her to seek the 2016 presidential nomination.
“When you can’t win an argument,” he added, “then sometimes it’s not worth having that argument.”
Warren’s allies also say she unintentionally made a bigger mistake in treading too far into the fraught area of racial science — a field that has, at times, been used to justify the subjugation of racial minorities and Native Americans.
Racial justice advocates, keen to cast race as a socially constructed issue with little biological grounding, said Warren’s actions gave validity to the idea that race is determined by blood, a bedrock principle for those who believe in racial hierarchies and castes. Native American critics, including Kim TallBear, a prominent scholar from the University of Alberta, said in October that Warren’s actions relied on “settler-colonial” definitions of who is an indigenous American and amounted to a haughty refusal to hear out her long-standing critics.
This line of criticism has particularly stung Warren, who has made a point to hold several private talks with Native leaders since taking the DNA test, emphasizing her respect for tribal sovereignty and making clear she does not claim tribal citizenship.
Three people close to senior members of Warren’s team, who were granted anonymity to speak freely on the issue, said they were “shocked” and “rattled” by the senator’s decision to take the DNA test, which they described as an unequivocal misstep that could have lasting consequences, even on 2020 staffing. One former adviser, who also asked not to be named, called it a “strategic failure” that was “depressing and unforgettable.”
Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-director for the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive group that has previously been supportive of Warren, said, “If she wants to be considered the leader of our party or the leader of the progressive movement, she needs a reconciliation.”
“And that reconciliation should center Native voices and make sure that their stories of loss and theft of identity come front and center, not, you know, one white woman’s tale of understanding her DNA,” Epps-Addison said.
The new chapter marks unfamiliar territory for Warren, who has rarely, if ever, been so vocally criticized by members of the progressive coalition. Some white progressives have stumbled on issues of race and identity, but before the DNA test was released, Warren had built a reservoir of goodwill among liberals on these issues. She received praise for lending her national platform to highlighting injustice against Native Americans recently and, in one high-profile incident, she impressed social justice activists when she refused to backtrack after calling the U.S. criminal justice system “racist” from “front to back.”
Few think that this goodwill has completely disappeared, but the last month has seen even individuals who had previously been bullish on Warren’s potential candidacy reconsider their position. The questioning comes from a place of disappointment, because many of Warren’s backers believe she is better on issues of racial justice and identity than her handling of this issue may imply.
“Democratic candidates have a long history of not striking back fast enough when it comes to false narratives against them,” said Rebecca Katz, the New York-based progressive strategist. “Warren should get some credit for trying and pushing back hard, but we all have to be wide-eyed when it comes to race.”
“Our 2020 candidates need to understand race and identity in a way that tripped up candidates in 2016,” she said.
Progressive groups also lament that Warren kept the decision to take the test so closely guarded. Several said that if a greater diversity of stakeholders had been included in the conversation, including progressives whom Warren often consults during policy rollouts, much of the current fallout could have been avoided.
In interviews, several progressives wondered if Warren’s decision to take the DNA test was indicative of a larger problem for several prospective presidential candidates: that their inner circles of advisers do not reflect the racial diversity of the Democratic electorate.
“Race is a true third rail in American politics, and you can make a lot of mistakes when we don’t have a diverse set of folks who are in the room and empowered to make decisions,” said Eric Lundy, program director of Inclusv, a group that pushes for more diversity in political campaign staffs.
But as Warren inches closer to a presidential run, even critics of her decision to take the DNA test believe she is well positioned to shore up support. In the past week she has received heaps of praise for a foreign policy speech at American University, and she remains one of the party’s top fundraisers and surrogates.
Allies in Boston pointed out that, in Warren’s recent re-election effort in Massachusetts, there was no evidence that the DNA announcement hurt her standing among voters. Those close to Warren also note they had several allies in the progressive and Native American communities who supported their decision from the outset.
Deb Haaland, the newly elected House member from New Mexico who will be one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, said she believed the senator was seeking to learn more about her past. Other tribal leaders, including those from the Lenape Indian Tribe in Delaware and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, have also supported Warren’s decision. Warren’s DNA test, which was conducted by renowned geneticist Carlos Bustamante and released by her office, showed strong evidence that Warren has Native American pedigree “6-10 generations ago.”
“I absolutely respect tribes’ authority to determine who are tribal members,” Haaland said. “But I don’t think that’s what Elizabeth Warren was doing. She was merely looking to find a connection to her past and that’s exactly what she did.”
This is not a view universally shared. The Cherokee Nation declined repeated requests for comment, but in a previous statement, tribal leaders said Warren’s decision dishonored “legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.”
Ian Haney López, the law and racial justice professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said Warren made a “naïve” error by not seeming to grasp the attack strategy of conservatives. Just as Trump used his so-called “birther” campaign to depict former President Barack Obama as a foreign-born immigrant, Trump was not seeking to make a factual claim against Warren but to brand her as an outsider, López said.
Twila Barnes, a Cherokee genealogist who has thoroughly tracked Warren’s claims of native ancestry since it became national news in 2012, said her “jaw was on the floor” when she saw Warren’s decision to take the DNA test and the slick video that accompanied the announcement of the results.
Barnes said Warren had an opportunity to teach the broader public about how genetic testing has historically been used as a weapon against Native communities, but instead she “helped perpetuate a very dangerous idea.”
It has pushed Barnes, a self-described liberal, to make something of a personal pledge: She will never vote for Warren under any circumstance, including in an election against Trump.
Not even an apology — at this point — would help.
“She’s had six years to apologize,” she said.