Sen. Elizabeth Warren appeared to snub a handshake from Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday night at the conclusion of the Democratic debate in Iowa, sparking tensions between their supporters.
The debate had already ended, but the two senators appeared to have a heated exchange while fellow 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer hovered nearby.
“I was really just trying to say goodnight to both of them,” Steyer told reporters. “I think they were trying to figure out something between the two of them, but I didn’t really hear what it was.”
During a CNN appearance later on in the night, Steyer characterized the incident as “awkward.”
“It was one of those awkward moments where I felt like, ‘I need to move on as fast as possible,'” he said.
During the debate, Des Moines Register political correspondent Brianne Pfannenstiel asked Sanders to confirm or deny reports that he’d told Warren a woman could not take the White House in 2020.
Sanders issued an outright denial.
Pfannenstiel asked Sanders again to confirm reports that he’d never “told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election.”
“That is correct,” Sanders said.
Pfannensteil immediately turned to Warren and drew a laugh from the audience by appearing to take Warren’s side.
“Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?” Pfannensteil said.
The friction between Warren and Sanders on the debate stage played out on Twitter between the two candidates’ supporters, exposing an increasingly contentious rift in the Democratic Party.
“Lie or mischaracterize your ‘friend’s’ comments, double down, refuse to shake his hand. Are you watching America?” tweeted Kylie Kulinski, a podcast host and the founder of Justice Democrats.
I don’t believe Elizabeth Pocahontas
— Inter-agency Galactic Know-It-All (@2Twitte39301335) January 15, 2020
Some Sanders’ supporters slammed Warren by calling her “Pocahontas,” one of President Donald Trump’s favorite nicknames for the Massachusetts senator.
Bill Cimbrelo, a Sanders supporter and failed Congressional candidate, challenged the genuineness of Warren’s reaction.
Why did it take Warren 3 wks before the Iowa caucuses to recall this conversation in such vivid detail? Why pretend to be Bernie's friend at every other debate. Why did she wait for this moment, when she knew the cameras were on her, to refuse her 'friend's' handshake? #LyinLiz
— Bill Cimbrelo ? (@Bill_Cimbrelo) January 15, 2020
“Warren leaks details to hit Bernie as a sexist. Bernie denies the claims. Warren asks for de-escalation. Bernie extends his hand for a handshake and gets denied. What does Warren think this is going to cause?” tweeted one commenter.
Warren’s supporters on Twitter fired back.
In the wake of the debate, former Vox staff writer Emily Crockett expressed her outrage at Sanders backers comparing Warren to a “snake,” saying it was “appallingly sexist.”
I mean, SNAKES?? The literal ORIGINAL symbol of why women can't be trusted??!
(And yes, women can also be sexist against other women, because sexist tropes are the toxic sludge we are all raised with.)
— Emily Crockett (@emilycrockett) January 15, 2020
“I mean, SNAKES?? The literal ORIGINAL symbol of why women can’t be trusted??!” Crockett tweeted, referencing the biblical story of Adam and Eve.
In another tweet, she accused Sanders supporters of deploying snakes in “Gamer-gate style swarms to insist a woman is lying about a pretty mild discussion of sexism she had once.”
A pretty mild discussion that she has weaponized to betray her “good friend” and factionalize the progressive movement. Snake is almost too cute for what she’s done. #NeverWarren pic.twitter.com/114L4KE209
— Carl Jonasson (@CarJonasson) January 15, 2020
Journalist Rebecca Eisenberg suggested the reaction Warren received on social media was “sexist.”
Can someone please do a comparison of comments Warren is getting tonight in her social channels vs comments Bernie is getting regarding the handshake and their (alleged) conversation? I promise you will see a pattern. (The pattern is sexism!)
— Rebecca Eisenberg (@ryeisenberg) January 15, 2020
Healthcare activist Kendally Brown said Sanders, Warren’s supposed “friend,” had failed her as an “ally.”
It doesn't, and that's how you know her reaction was authentic: it literally could ONLY hurt her. Sometimes having a friend fail to be an ally and admit when they've messed up really, really hurts, and I think for a moment, her hurt showed through.
— Kendally Brown (@kendallybrown) January 15, 2020
The origin of the controversy
Prior to the debate on Monday, Warren took the unusual step of confirming a report that Sanders told her during a 2018 meeting that he did not believe a woman could win the 2020 presidential race.
Warren and Sanders are fellow U.S. senators, friends and their party’s progressive standard-bearers who agreed early in the nominating contest to an informal non-aggression pact.
But amid escalating tensions between the two rivals and with the first nominating contest looming in early February, Warren pushed back against Sanders’ denial of a CNN report detailing the meeting in which he told her he did not believe a woman could beat Republican President Donald Trump.
“I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, said in a statement released late on Monday describing the two-hour meeting in December 2018.
Some Sanders supporters on social media described Warren’s actions as a “dagger” to the back of her fellow progressive senator.
In its report on the meeting, CNN cited four people with knowledge of it, including two with whom Warren spoke about it soon after and another two who were familiar with what happened at the meeting.
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, told CNN it was “ludicrous” that he would tell Warren a woman could not win. “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” he added.
(Reuters contributed to this report.)