Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Monday night that she has “no interest in discussing this private meeting any further,” but after making an explosive charge against her 2020 Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders that stated desire is clearly not going to matter very much—and critics of how Warren levied the accusation suggested that could likely be the point.
In a statement issued by her campaign’s communication manager Kristen Orthman, Warren claimed that in a private 2018 conversation Sanders “disagreed” with her that a woman candidate could beat President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election—a difference of opinion she characterized as having something to do with “punditry.”
What Sanders was alleged to have said in the 2018 conversation was first made by anonymous sources “familiar with” the meeting in a report earlier Monday by CNN—a piece of journalism pilloried by critics as an irresponsible hit job. In response to the claims in the story, Sanders said it was “ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.”
Warren offered a different version. In her statement about their private discussion, she said the two discussed “the 2020 election, our past work together, and our shared goals: beating Donald Trump, taking back our government from the wealthy and well-connected, and building an economy that works for everyone.”
Among the other topics that came up, Warren added, “was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said. “I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry.”
For longtime political observers of Sanders, Warren’s characterization of the private discussion seemed incompatible with how Sanders conducts himself and what he’s been saying publicly about women in general and female politicians in particular for decades:
The version of the story where Bernie says a woman “can’t win” just doesn’t scan. That’s not how he talks. His explanation, that he said Trump will weaponize misogyny, makes more sense (and is obviously true). https://t.co/h5y86XfAF4
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) January 13, 2020
Offering his perspective, the Washington Post‘s campaign reporter Dave Weigel responded to Warren’s statement by remarking, “There are Rashomon vibes to this Warren/Sanders meeting but it would be weird if a frank conversation didn’t get into mysogyny and how Trump would use it. Sanders’s statement hints at that. It’s just a ways from that to ‘a woman can’t win.’”
In a separate tweet, he added:
Not gonna tweet all night about this, but the initial Sanders statement denied that he said a woman can’t win, and added that they discussed how Trump was a “sexist” who would “weaponize whatever he could.” That’s where I see the overlap w Warren statement.
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) January 14, 2020
Other observers remained unconvinced Sanders would ever flatly assert that a woman could not be president, but gave Warren the benefit of the doubt and suggested that she, and now her campaign, possibly misinterpreted something said during that “frank conversation” about how Trump would deploy sexist and misogynistic attacks into a claim that Bernie himself made.
I’m sure there are elements of truth in both versions of the story.
But this was a private conversation from year ago— two friends talking politics. A “version” of the story isn’t enough, especially when the charge is so extreme… and beneficial to the one dipping in the polls. https://t.co/jSvyLTNa7F
— Emma Vigeland (@EmmaVigeland) January 14, 2020
without a transcript, the Warren/Sanders story is basically two dueling characterizations of a conversation from over a year ago. I don’t for one second believe that he said “a woman can’t win,” nor did she explicitly attribute those words to him in her confirmation.
— Natalie Shure (@nataliesurely) January 14, 2020
Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi pointed out: “There were only two people in that Sanders-Warren meeting. Outlets like CNN are saying the ‘revelation’ that Bernie didn’t believe a woman could win is sourced to four people, but the story is really entirely sourced to Warren.”
Some reporting, meanwhile, indicated a belief within the Sanders campaign that this was all coordinated in advance by Warren and her staff.
According to Steve Peoples, political reporter for the Associated Press: “A senior Bernie Sanders’ adviser tells me they believe that Elizabeth Warren’s campaign intentionally leaked a false description of their 2018 meeting. Says it’s a recent pattern of Warren attacking the Dem front-runner.”
Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Intercept, tweeted that he asked Warren directly Monday night “if the leak from the Sanders meeting was intentional, and she said that it was not.” Regardless, Grim added, “questions about how it came about” will persist.
Many Sanders supporters were unwilling to give Warren much benefit of the doubt and characterized the accusation as a “cynical,” “desperate,” and “sad” effort to attack her rival—leading her in most polling—just a day before the next Democratic debate and only three weeks ahead of the Iowa caucus.
Really low to shop around a damning story about a private and therefore, if both parties present disagree, categorically unverifiable conversation in the eleventh hour.
— Meagan Day (@meaganmday) January 14, 2020
There’s 2 possibilities as far as I can tell:
1- Warren is lying
2- She’s being purposely dense to the context. IE Bernie saying something like: “bc of the role of sexism, a woman will unfairly have a harder time getting elected”
Either way she stabbed her “friend” in the back
— Secular Talk (@KyleKulinski) January 14, 2020
I would concede that I could’ve misinterpreted it and would call my “good friend” for clarity before asserting something that clearly goes nuclear on his campaign . unless that is, my intention was to go nuclear on his campaign. in which case, I’d do what Warren did
— Julia (@bigkittenqueen) January 14, 2020
This is truly disgraceful. #Bernie2020
— RoseAnn DeMoro (@RoseAnnDeMoro) January 14, 2020
For her part, Sanders national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray was unsparing to those co-opting the language of the ‘Me Too’ movement and trying to use a faux form of feminism to argue that Warren’s version of what transpired is beyond reproach simply because she is a woman:
I honestly can’t stop thinking about how this is one of the most despicable, craven, cynical exploitations of sexual assault I’ve ever seen — all because a political operative who, herself, has a checkered record on protecting survivors, doesn’t like Bernie. https://t.co/bbc0I6F1DY
— Briahna Joy Gray (@briebriejoy) January 14, 2020
After CNN‘s story earlier in the day, but prior to Warren’s evening statement, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir claimed the reporting—which cited anonymous sources not even present during the private discussion—was troubling precisely because the accusation was unequivocally false. “It’s a lie,” Shakir asserted. Watch:
— Ryan Nobles (@ryanobles) January 13, 2020
With progressives warning that a distracting and drawn out imbroglio between Warren and Sanders at this point in the primary is a lose-lose for the movement overall—and that only corporate interests and Republicans will benefit from a division between the two most left-leaning candidates—many wished the story would just go away.
mom and dad are fighting and all I wanna do is go to my room and put my headphones on.
— Varshini Prakash 🌅 (@VarshPrakash) January 14, 2020
Meanwhile, the emerging unified message from the Sanders campaign was a call to “stay focused” on the issues that matter and keep the eye on the prize of winning the primary and then beating Trump in order to enact a bold vision to transform the nation.
Stay focused, everyone https://t.co/1s5X2VTzHa
— Faiz (@fshakir) January 14, 2020
As the controversy stirred up by a private conversation between Warren and Sanders in 2018 raged on social media and among the cable news pundits, Emma Vigeland of The Young Turks warned of the damage being done and called for a renewed truce between the two candidates:
I think Warren’s in the wrong. But more importantly: this helps BIDEN.
Anti-single payer, pro-Wall St, Iraq war voting, mass incarcerating, can’t remember anything BIDEN.
He’d lose to Trump. End this.
— Emma Vigeland (@EmmaVigeland) January 14, 2020
“Everything about this Bernie/Warren story sucks,” Vigeland stated. “I hate it.”