In Depth

‘You called me a liar’: behind Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s public spat

Newly released audio clip reveals testy exchange following Democratic debate

The battle between US Democrats vying to take on Donald Trump in the presidential election has fuelled many political rivalries - but few so fierce as that developing between former allies Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

The pair of progressives got into a public spate during the seventh Democratic primary debate on Tuesday, after Warren claimed that the Vermont senator had once said he believed a women could not win the presidency. 

She then appeared to refuse to shake hands with Sanders at the end of the televised showdown, in Iowa. Now, new light has been shed on their post-debate exchange after CNN released audio that appears to feature Warren saying: “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Sanders responds that it was she who called him a liar, adding: “Let’s not do it right now.” But just what lies behind their escalation of hostilities? 

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What does Warren allege?

Earlier this week, CNN published an article about a meeting between Sanders and Massachusetts senator Warren at her apartment back in 2018 to discuss tactics for the 2020 presidential election

According to the broadcaster, the pair “discussed how to best take on President Donald Trump”, with Warren laying out the “two main reasons she believed she would be a strong candidate: she could make a robust argument about the economy and earn broad support from female voters”.

“Sanders responded that he did not believe a woman could win,” says CNN.

Following widespread debate about that claim, Warren released a statement that said: “Bernie and I met for more than two hours in December 2018 to discuss the 2020 election, our past work together and our shared goals.

“Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

What has Sanders said?

Sanders has denied making the comment, telling CNN: “It is 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.”

He added: “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponise whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by three million votes in 2016.”

Sanders refuted the claim again during this week’s debate, pointing to his record of support of gender equality - prompting Warren’s reported complaints about being called a liar.

And the reaction?

The fallout from the debate has seen some supporters from the Warren and Sanders camps turning against each other. 

The hashtag “#neverWarren” has been trending on Twitter as Sanders allies accuse his rival of twisting the truth. 

Sanders is also under attack on the social media platform, with one user tweeting: “That moment when the dude who called himself a ‘feminist’ on his profile shows his true colors on date 5...You hate to see it.”

But other commentators argue that the drama over a simple handshake is a distraction from the wider issue of sexism. Vox describes the row as “an example of a media - and human - tendency to allow the minor to obscure the major”.

“Making a handshake the biggest moment of January’s debate has drawn attention away from important things that informed it: narrowly, Sanders and Warren working hard to bury the hatchet in the name of advancing the progressivism they share, and broadly, conversations around the sexism inherent to questions of whether a woman can be president,” the news site says. 

That view has been echoed by some on Twitter. Julian Brave NoiseCat, a strategist at progress think-tank Data for Progress, has lamented the cycle of “partisans yelling at each other through the internet about who didn’t shake whose hand”, The Guardian reports.

But the feeling of despair about the Warren-Sanders spate is perhaps best summed up by Varshini Prakash, director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement against climate change, who tweeted: “Mom and dad are fighting and all I wanna do is go to my room and put my headphones on.”


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