It began as a lighthearted moment. Senator Kamala Harris, the California Democrat and former prosecutor who announced her presidential candidacy last month, revealed on a popular radio show this week that she had smoked marijuana during her college years at Howard University in Washington.
But after a viral tweet ignited backlash from marijuana activists and conservatives, Ms. Harris faces accusations that she fabricated parts of her story. In the midst of answering simultaneous questions about what music she listens to, she appeared to some to say she listened to rap artists like Tupac and Snoop Dogg as she smoked in college, though neither released an album until after she graduated.
Conservative news outlets feasted on what they portrayed as an embarrassing gaffe, with the popular morning show “Fox & Friends” even dedicating a segment to it Wednesday morning. Less partisan media outlets also publicized the supposed controversy, with some alleging that it was further proof Ms. Harris, who is likely the most viable black woman ever to run for president, was playing up parts of her identity in order to impress black voters.
The only problem: Ms. Harris’s campaign vehemently denies that she ever claimed to be listening to Tupac and Snoop Dogg while in college, and a video recording of the radio interview provides additional context that may support that account.
How it started
Ms. Harris appeared Monday morning on “The Breakfast Club,” the wildly popular and wide-ranging morning radio show that often focuses on hip-hop and black culture. During her appearance, Ms. Harris discussed her support for marijuana legalization, and said she wanted the federal government to loosen restrictions so the drug could be properly researched.
Charlamagne tha God, one of the show’s hosts, asked Ms. Harris if she had ever smoked marijuana herself — a question presidential candidates have long been loath to answer. Ms. Harris confidently said she had, adding, “and I did inhale.”
“It was a long time ago,” Ms. Harris said, laughing.
Later in the interview, Ms. Harris was asked about her taste in music. She has previously named California artists like Tupac and Snoop Dogg among her favorites.
“What does Kamala Harris listen to?” asked D.J. Envy, another one of the show’s hosts.
Before Ms. Harris answered the question, Charlamagne tha God interjected, asking her to say what she listened to while she smoked in college. Everyone laughed, before D.J. Envy appeared to return to his original question.
“Was it Snoop?” he asked.
“Oh yeah, definitely Snoop,” Ms. Harris said. “Tupac for sure.”
Chaos ensued. The viral tweet pointed out that Snoop Dogg and Tupac did not debut until Ms. Harris had left college. Then music blogs and conservative outlets begin to write up the exchange. However, several of them omitted the fact that D.J. Envy had asked Ms. Harris more generally about her music opinions, a key portion in the exchange that makes it unclear whose question Ms. Harris was responding to.
Ms. Harris’s campaign attempted to quell the backlash on Twitter, but “Reefergate,” as her national press secretary, Ian Sams, coined it, had already taken off.
Why it matters
In a crowded and diverse Democratic primary field with no clear front-runner, Ms. Harris has emerged as a top-tier candidate, and the strong rollout of her campaign has increasingly made her a political target. Liberal critics have long had policy differences with Ms. Harris, saying her record on criminal justice and immigrant rights left much to be desired. Others have pointed out how Ms. Harris’s admission that she smoked marijuana in college flies in the face of her record as a prosecutor and the fact that she opposed marijuana legalization during her time as California attorney general.
Conservatives who support President Trump have tried to stoke divisions surrounding her candidacy, branding her as inauthentic and manufactured particularly on issues of race and identity.
This month, a viral meme showed a tweet from Ms. Harris clumsily posting about an online challenge popular among young internet users. The tweet was fake, but it didn’t matter — it garnered thousands of shares online. And in the days after Ms. Harris announced her presidential campaign, another widely spread internet theory claimed she was ineligible to run for president because of her parents’ immigration status. This was also false.
Ms. Harris, whose mother was Tamil Indian and whose father is Jamaican, has rebuffed questions about whether she is “black enough” to appeal to black voters nationally.
“I’m black, and I’m proud of being black,” Ms. Harris said in the “Breakfast Club” interview. “I was born black. I will die black, and I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand.”
Regardless, she’s repeatedly being forced to answer questions about whether she’s pandering for black votes.
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee and the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination, faced similar charges of inauthenticity, driven by internet rumors that were also backed up by questionable evidence. When Mrs. Clinton visited “The Breakfast Club” in 2016, she ignited controversy after she said she carried hot sauce in her purse. Conservatives and young liberals accused her of trying overtly to win black votes by with a reference to the line “I got hot sauce in my bag” from Beyoncé’s instant classic song “Formation,” which debuted that year.
“Sriracha Gate? Hillary Clinton Mocked Mercilessly for Hot Sauce Comment,” read one headline.
“Clinton stirs anger by claiming she carries hot sauce in her bag, like Beyoncé,” read another.
But like Monday’s episode with Ms. Harris, the truth was more complicated: Mrs. Clinton’s well-documented love of hot sauce dated to at least the 1990s — long before “Formation” existed.