Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

I had a buddy in college who told me he was a very good chess player. I found this encouraging and invited him to play. He was a fairly decent player but he became outraged when I utilized the en passant move on him and insisted that I was attempting to cheat. In today’s world, our argument would have been resolved in seconds by doing a google search on one of our phones, but back in the dark ages of the early 1990’s, there was no simple way to resolve our dispute. So, instead, we raged at each other, both of us insisting with increasing castigation that we were right. At one point, he offered to give me a million dollars if it were true that a pawn can capture a pawn in a space it doesn’t actually occupy.

A funny thing about the pre-internet days is that these kinds of disagreements could persist without being resolved. It bothered me that my friend thought I was either a cheat or an idiot, and also that he persisted in being so very wrong, but I was more interested in having a somewhat capable chess partner than in taking the time to go to the library or a book store to prove him wrong. I agreed to play him without the en passant rule. Yet, every time he took advantage of the fact that we weren’t using the rule, I couldn’t help but complain anew, and we’d argue and argue some more. We didn’t resolve the issue until many years after college when I sent him a link and he accepted that he’d been in error and apologized for questioning my integrity.

You know what I didn’t do?

I didn’t ask him for the million dollars he’d promised me if he was wrong. I didn’t ask because I knew an offer of a million dollar bet is not a real offer. If he’d bet me twenty bucks, I would have told him I expected him to transfer that amount to my PayPal account or send me a personal check. He would have been honor-bound to give me my money.

So, how do we treat it when a president of the United States who professes to be a billionaire makes a bet and offers to pay a million dollars to charity if he is wrong?

In July, Donald Trump issued a challenge of sorts to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. At a MAGA rally in Montana, the president offered a hypothetical scenario where he’d be running for reelection against Warren and facing her in a presidential debate. Here is what he said:

“Let’s say I’m debating Pocahontas. I promise you I’ll do this: I will take, you know those little kits they sell on television… learn your heritage!”

“A guy says he was born in Scotland, turns out he was born in Puerto Rico, that’s okay, that’s good, you know. A guy says he was born in Germany, he was born someplace else.”

“And in the middle of the debate, when she proclaims that she is of Indian heritage because her mother said she has high cheek bones, that is her only evidence, her mother said we have high cheek bones…We will take that little kit — but we have to do it gently. Because we’re in the #MeToo generation, we have to do it gently.”

“And we will very gently take that kit, and slowly toss it, hoping it doesn’t injure her arm, and we will say: I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”

It’s embarrassing that our president speaks like this. He managed to insult Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, survivors of sexual assault, the sensibilities of all decent people, and a sitting U.S. Senator. That’s a lot of slights and insults delivered with an impressive economy of words. But was it a real offer?

Senator Warren certainly thinks it was, and she took “that little kit” and sent it off to a specialist at Stanford University who tested it without knowing whose lineage he was investigating. The results show that sometime in the last six to ten generations, there was an “unadmixed” Native American in Sen. Warren’s direct ancestry.

Conclusion. While the vast majority of the individual’s ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago.

Armed with proof that she was correct when she stated that she had a Native American ancestor, she asked the president to make good on his pledge and donate a million dollars to her favorite charity.

In this case, she chose the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and explained that it is “a nonprofit working to protect Native women from violence.”

When Donald Trump was informed that Senator Warren had confirmed her Native American ancestry, he responded by saying “Who cares?” and then denied having made an actual bet: “I didn’t say that. Nah, you’d better read it again.”

We can all read it as many times as we want and it will still say the same thing. The president was speaking hypothetically about a future in which Elizabeth Warren wins the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for president.  He was bragging about how rude and confrontational he would be to her in a debate.  He was saying that he’d destroy her like a bug by forcing her to admit that she has no Native American genes.

The president was being his aggressively wrong and obnoxious self, but was he making an actual wager that he is honor-bound to respect?

If I bet you a million dollars on something, that’s a figure of speech rather than an actual bet. But when a billionaire promises a million dollars to charity, that’s ordinarily something that is considered a real promise.  Can Trump welsh out on his obligation using the figure of speech defense? I don’t think it should apply to him.

On the other hand, he didn’t challenge Sen. Warren to get this test done herself and make any promises based on the results.  He said he would issue that challenge if Warren is the Democratic Party’s nominee. If he wants to hide behind that distinction, he is on solid footing.  I don’t think he’s obligated to give the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center a million dollars.

Yet, while he isn’t obligated to do it, I still think he should. Without respect to the politics of the issue, basic honor should lead him to do what he said he’d do if it turned out he was wrong about Senator Warren’s ancestry.  He’s been mocking her publicly and calling her Pocahontas for several years now, and he’s been completely wrong in addition to being unforgivably rude.  When a billionaire makes a promise of charitable giving, it’s unseemly to look for technicalities to avoid keeping that promise.

Of course, Trump not only refuses to give away the million dollars, he questions why anyone would care that he’s been wrong all this time.  It’s the same routine he delivered when President Obama provided proof of his birth at Kapiʻolani Hospital in Honolulu. At that time, he did not apologize for promoting birtherism but instead took credit for forcing the president to clear up a controversy that was troubling a lot of Americans.  That was a brazen and dishonorable act, and he’s repeating it now.

My college friend was also aggressively wrong and disparaging about my character, but he admitted his mistake and apologized, which is all that I required of him.  The president can’t even do that, but he really ought to do quite a bit more and make the donation that Senator Warren has requested.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com