It's a complicated history.

Photographer: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Donald Trump's 'Pocahontas' Playbook

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."
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Donald Trump has had some fun lately with Elizabeth Warren’s self-proclaimed Native American ancestry.

“Pocahontas is not happy, she’s not happy,” he said of Warren a few weeks ago. He re-upped on Monday, telling NBC News that Warren “made up her heritage, which I think is racist.”

As we know by now, Trump has routinely dotted his speeches and embroidered his Twitter feed with references to Warren as “Pocahontas” -- all the while expressing doubts about her lineage. (Warren cites “family stories” as the provenance for the claim that she has Cherokee heritage, which has been scrutinized ever since she launched her successful Senate bid as a Democrat almost five years ago).

“She said she was Native American but she wasn’t able to document it,” Trump said at a press conference in May. “I think she’s as Native American as I am.”

For those who follow Trump, this line of attack comes with an echo. Long before Elizabeth Warren was on the scene, Trump had put the notion of Native American identity and lineage into play as he pursued a larger goal. (Disclosure: I wrote a Trump biography, “TrumpNation,” for which he sued me because, among other things, it questioned the size of his fortune. The suit was later dismissed.)

In 1993, Trump testified before the House of Representatives as it examined the rapid growth of Native American-owned casinos and offered his views on why further expansion might be a bad idea.

At the time, Trump had already put three of his Atlantic City casinos into bankruptcy protection and was about two months away from doing the same with the Plaza Hotel in New York. Having flirted with personal bankruptcy, bridling under an allowance set by his bankers, and on the verge of losing his last big Manhattan real estate project, Trump was perhaps a little antsy about competition in his local New Jersey gambling market. Front of mind for Trump was the Mashantucket Pequots, whose Connecticut casino, Foxwoods, had expanded a year earlier and was booming.

Trump invoked the specter of organized crime, telling the committee that he was the “largest casino operator in the world” (he wasn’t) and that “there is no way the Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob.” (Despite those fears, Trump would later go on to manage a Native American casino in California.)

George Miller, a California Democrat who supported Native American gambling and was a member of the House committee involved in the legalization debate, butted heads with Trump on the merits of such fears before the pair went on to discuss comments Trump had made on a radio show:

Miller: Is this you discussing Indian blood: "We are going to judge people by whether they have Indian blood,” whether they are qualified to run a gaming casino or not?

Trump: That probably is me, absolutely, because I’ll tell you what, if you look — if you look at some of the reservations that you have approved — you, sir, in your great wisdom, have approved — I will tell you right now, they don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians. Now maybe we say politically correct or not politically correct. They don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians to Indians, and a lot of people are laughing at it, and you are telling how tough it is, how rough it is, to get approved. Well, you go up to Connecticut, and you look. Now, they don’t look like Indians to me, sir.

Miller: Thank God that is not the test of whether or not people have rights in this country or not, whether or not they pass your look test.

Trump: Yes. It depends whether or not you are approving it, sir.

Miller: No, no, it is not a question of whether I am approving it. It is not a question of whether I am approving it. Mr. Trump, do you know in the history of this country where we have heard this discussion before: “They don’t look Jewish to me.”

Trump: Oh really?

Miller: “They don’t look Indian to me.” “They don’t look Italian to me.” And that was the test for whether people could go into business or not go into business, whether they could get a bank loan: You are too black; you are not black enough.

The House committee then listened to a recording of the radio program Miller had referenced.

“I could perhaps become an Indian myself,” Trump told the radio host, Don Imus. “I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations.”

Seven years later, Trump was at it again, lobbying against the legalization of casino gambling in New York state. In language that could have come straight from his current presidential bid, he deployed a series of newspaper and broadcast ads to brand one tribe seeking a license, the Mohawks, as drug dealers and criminals.

Trump initially kept his involvement in the Mohawk ad campaign a secret until a controversy arose around the effort. His lawyer turned over early drafts of the incendiary ads to a state lobbying commission examining the campaign; Trump had given approving feedback on those drafts with hand-written notes in their margins: “looks good” and “not bad.”

Maybe it’s not a surprise that Trump is reaching into his old playbook as he lays into Elizabeth Warren. But for others in the Republican party who are worried that their presumptive presidential nominee won’t abandon racially charged attacks -- and still cling to the hope that Trump is someone who can evolve and be “more presidential” -- they should remember that their guy isn’t someone who changes his ways, or harbors regrets.

“Any regret calling her Pocahontas?” Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly asked Trump recently, in a chat about Warren. “Do you regret that?”

“I do, I do regret calling her Pocahontas, ’cause I think it’s a tremendous insult to Pocahontas,” Trump responded.

Maybe all of this speculation about Warren’s lineage just hits too close to home. For years, Trump led the world to believe that he was of Swedish descent, a claim that found its way into his autobiography, “The Art of the Deal.” In truth, he is of German descent, and his family’s original name was Drumpf. Why the switch? As the Trump family repeatedly told reporters, they were concerned that their German heritage would offend Jewish tenants in their buildings. In other words, it would have been bad for business.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net