Donald Trump made a racial joke about Native Americans on Monday during a White House ceremony honoring Navajo veterans of the second world war.
Addressing Native American veterans, Trump repeated a favorite taunt about Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, a political opponent who he refers to derisively as “Pocahontas”.
“You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said, speaking to the veterans from a podium placed in front of a portrait of US president Andrew Jackson. “Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”
Trump has repeatedly mocked Warren over her claim of Cherokee ancestry by calling her Pocahontas, who was the daughter of a powerful Native American leader in 17th century colonial Virginia whose legacy was romanticized in the Disney film of the same name. During the campaign, Trump’s use of the nickname drew loud whoops and cheers. But on Monday, the audience remained silent.
Warren, a progressive icon from Massachusetts who has a long record of sparring with Trump, later said it was “deeply unfortunate” that “the President of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur”.
The White House disputed that characterization and blamed the senator for not being forthright about her ancestry.
“I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career,” Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary said on Monday.
Challenged over Warren’s description of it as a “racial slur”, Sanders replied: “I think that’s a ridiculous response.”
She denied that the president had insulted elderly guests who served the nation during the war. “The president certainly finds an extreme amount of value and respect for these individuals which is why he brought them and invited them to come to the White House, spent time with them, recognizing and honoring them today.”
As Sanders left the briefing room, a reporter shouted a question about why Trump’s remarks took place under a portrait of Andrew Jackson, notorious for forced removals of Indians. She did not respond.
The line of attack of Warren’s ancestry stretches back to her 2012 senatorial campaign, when it was revealed that she had listed herself as a minority while working at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Harvard Law School. Warren has said that she believed her family had Cherokee Indian ancestors, though critics have argued that she sought to gain an unfair advantage by claiming Native American roots. Both universities have denied that race was a factor in her hiring.
Trump held the ceremony honoring the Navajo code talkers in the Oval Office, where he has hung a large portrait of Jackson, who in 1830 signed the Indian Removal Act that started the process of the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans from the American South.
The Navajo “code talkers” used their native language to create a secret means of communication that helped the Allied forces gain on Japan in the Pacific theater. At the ceremony, the three code talkers described their experience during the battle of Iwo Jima. Trump hailed the men as “special people”.