US Election 2020

US 2020: Biden campaign says Trump 'abhorrent' for fuelling Harris conspiracy

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris take the stage at a campaign event. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Joe Biden named Kamala Harris his running mate - she is the first woman of colour on a major party ticket

The campaign team for Democratic White House candidate Joe Biden has issued a scathing response after US President Donald Trump amplified a conspiracy theory about his running mate.

Mr Trump said he had "heard" that Kamala Harris - a US-born citizen whose parents were immigrants - "doesn't qualify" to serve as US vice-president.

The fringe theory has been dismissed by constitutional experts.

The Biden campaign called the comments "abhorrent" and "pathetic".

They noted that Mr Trump spent years promoting a false "birther" theory that ex-President Barack Obama was not born in the US.

Ms Harris, a senator from California, on Tuesday became the first black woman and the first Asian-American to be named as a running mate on a main-party US presidential ticket.

"Donald Trump was the national leader of the grotesque, racist birther movement with respect to President Obama and has sought to fuel racism and tear our nation apart on every single day of his presidency," a Biden campaign spokesman said in an email.

"So it's unsurprising, but no less abhorrent, that as Trump makes a fool of himself straining to distract the American people from the horrific toll of his failed coronavirus response that his campaign and their allies would resort to wretched, demonstrably false lies in their pathetic desperation."

Ms Harris was born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother in Oakland, California, on 20 October 1964. As such, she is eligible to serve as president or vice-president.

Constitutional scholars have dismissed the fringe legal theory that Mr Trump was referring to.

To be vice-president or president, Kamala Harris "has to be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a resident in the United States for at least 14 years", Juliet Sorensen, a law professor at Northwestern University, told the Associated Press news agency. "She is. That's really the end of the inquiry."

Anyone born in the US and subject to its jurisdiction is a natural born citizen, regardless of the citizenship of their parents, says the Cornell Legal Information Institute.

What did Trump say?

After a conservative law professor questioned Ms Harris' eligibility based on her parents' immigration status at the time of her birth, Mr Trump was asked about the argument at a press conference on Thursday.

The president said: "I just heard it today that she doesn't meet the requirements and by the way the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionWho is Kamala Harris? A look at the life and career of a historic VP pick

"I have no idea if that's right. I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice-president.

"But that's a very serious, you're saying that, they're saying that she doesn't qualify because she wasn't born in this country."

The reporter replied there was no question that Ms Harris was born in the US, simply that her parents might not have been permanent US residents at the time.

Earlier on Thursday, a Trump campaign adviser, Jenna Ellis, reposted a tweet from the head of conservative group Judicial Watch, Tim Fitton.

In that tweet, Mr Fitton questioned whether Ms Harris was "ineligible to be vice-president under the US constitution's 'citizenship clause'".

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionKamala Harris' childhood home reacts to Biden pick

He also shared the opinion piece published in Newsweek magazine by John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University in California, that Mr Trump was asked about.

What is the law professor's argument?

Prof Eastman cites Article II of the US Constitution's wording that "no person except a natural born citizen… shall be eligible to the office of president".

He also points out that the 14th Amendment to the constitution says "all persons born… in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens".

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionJoe Biden: Will it be third time lucky in 2020?

Prof Eastman's argument, which he claims is also being made by other "commentators", hinges on the idea that Ms Harris may not have been subject to US jurisdiction if her parents were, for example, on student visas at the time of their daughter's birth in California.

"Her father was (and is) a Jamaican national, her mother was from India, and neither was a naturalized US citizen at the time of Harris' birth in 1964. That, according to these commentators, makes her not a 'natural born citizen' - and therefore ineligible for the office of the president and, hence, ineligible for the office of the vice president," he wrote in the Newsweek op-ed.

Experts in constitutional law have dismissed his claims

In 2010, Prof Eastman ran to be the Republican candidate for California attorney general. He lost to Steve Cooley, who went on to be defeated by Ms Harris, the Democratic candidate, in the general election.

Following furious backlash to the Newsweek op-ed, its editor-in-chief Nancy Cooper stood by the decision to publish, arguing on Thursday that Prof Eastman's article had "nothing to do with racist birtherism" and was instead "focusing on a long-standing, somewhat arcane legal debate".

What do other constitutional experts say?

Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky told CBS News, the BBC's US partner, that Prof Eastman's argument about Ms Harris' eligibility was "truly silly".

"Under section 1 of the 14th Amendment, anyone born in the United States is a United States citizen. The Supreme Court has held this since the 1890s. Kamala Harris was born in the United States," he said.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, told the Associated Press: "Let's just be honest about what it is: It's just a racist trope we trot out when we have a candidate of colour whose parents were not citizens."