Did Bernie Sanders Tell Elizabeth Warren a Woman Couldn’t Win a Presidential Election?

Claim

Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that a woman could not win a presidential election.

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On January 13 2020, CNN published an article with the headline, “Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in private 2018 meeting that a woman can’t win, sources say.” It began:

The stakes were high when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren met at Warren’s apartment in Washington, DC, one evening in December 2018. The longtime friends knew that they could soon be running against each other for president.

The two agreed that if they ultimately faced each other as presidential candidates, they should remain civil and avoid attacking one another, so as not to hurt the progressive movement. They also discussed how to best take on President Donald Trump, and Warren laid out 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.

Immediately thereafter, the article noted the claim was secondhand and attributed to several sources. CNN indicated “four people” provided accounts to the network for their reporting, none of whom could attest to witnessing the encounter.

Two of the people interviewed by CNN claimed to have spoken to Warren “soon” after the encounter. The second two were nebulously “familiar with the meeting,” possibly having obtained their information from the first two. It was not clear how the second two bolstered the credibility of the first two, as none of the four were present for or heard the supposed conversation:

The description of that meeting is based on the accounts of four people: two people Warren spoke with directly soon after the encounter, and two people familiar with the meeting.

In an apparent update to the story (not clearly marked), both Warren and Sanders are quoted responding to the allegation. Warren paraphrased Sanders, and Sanders denied saying that a woman couldn’t be elected. Sanders also pointed out that Hillary Clinton received over three million more votes than President Trump in 2016:

After publication of this story, Warren herself backed up this account of the meeting, saying in part in a statement [on January 13 2020], “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

That evening in 2018, Sanders expressed frustration at what he saw as a growing focus among Democrats on identity politics, according to one of the people familiar with the conversation. Warren told Sanders she disagreed with his assessment that a woman could not win, three of the four sources said.

Sanders denied the characterization of the meeting in a statement to 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,” Sanders said. “It’s sad that, three weeks before the Iowa caucus and a year after that private conversation, staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened. What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”

CNN’s publication of the claim just ahead of the January 14 2020 debate was predictably divisive, leading to heated discourse on and off social media. Among ancillary claims around the discussion was one that Sanders’ campaign held a “Bern the Witch” event in 2016 and circulated an image of Hillary Clinton burning at the stake. We examined that claim here, finding that it was partly false and partly misleading.

Social media users emphasized that the number of sources (four) was secondary to the relevance of their claims; none were present for the purported conversation:

The claim was aggregated by outlets like the New York Times, citing CNN as a source:

Others maintained that Sanders had suggested U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign would employ “sexist tactics,” not that a woman was unable to win:

Another common commentary involved the plausibility of any politician making such a remark:

People also pointed out that Sanders attempted to “draft Warren” in 2016, running only when she declined to accept:

Before the debate, two clips of Sanders speaking in 1987 and 1988 circulated. In the earlier video, Sanders tells a classroom of schoolchildren that women can and should be involved in electoral politics. In the second, Sanders said “a woman could be elected president”:

A January 14 2020 BuzzFeed report about the pre-debate controversy published before the debate aired obtained direct messages from Warren staffers on Twitter. BuzzFeed said the staffer’s characterization of the conversation “hewed closer” to Sanders’ version than Warren’s, but the organization did not share the entire conversation:

“I would be careful with the ‘sexism’ angle when it comes to the Bernie/Warren exchange individually — that’s not what this is about and I think it’ll be really bad news for us if that becomes what this is about (i.e. press asking her if she thinks Bernie is sexist),” the staffer told the group. “Is that what this is about broadly? Absolutely. But no one here is actually claiming Bernie himself is sexist (regardless of your own personal beliefs on that topic).”

[…]

At one point in a lengthy DM to the Twitter group on Tuesday morning, the Warren staffer’s description of the controversy hewed closer to Sanders’s description than Warren’s. “Claiming you’re worried a woman can’t win/flagging that she’ll receive sexist attacks is something many, many people feel,” the campaign official wrote.

As noted in our earlier fact check, CNN moderators raised the question to first Sanders and then Warren during the January 14 2020 debate:

Moderators did not address the secondhand sourcing of the question. Sanders responded:

MODERATOR: Let’s now turn to — let’s now turn to an issue that’s come up in the last 48 hours. Sen. Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that — and Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?

SANDERS: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want. Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States.

Go to YouTube today. There’s a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States. In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Sen. Warren. There was a movement to draft Sen. Warren to run for president. And you know what, I said — stayed back. Sen. Warren decided not to run, and I then — I did run afterwards.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States? And let me be very clear. If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination, I hope that’s not the case, I hope it’s me.

(LAUGHTER)

But if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR: So Sen. Sanders — Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you’re saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?

SANDERS: That is correct.

After Sanders said “that is correct,” the same moderator asked Warren what she thought “when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election”:

[MODERATOR]: Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN: I disagreed. Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But, look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head-on.

Although the juxtaposition of Sanders’ answer and the moderator’s next question caused laughter in the Des Moines crowd, the moment caused further irritation on social media. On January 15 2020, three of the top posts on Reddit’s r/all (in r/politics) were about that moment, and two referenced the trending hashtag #CNNisTrash:

‘CNN Is Truly a Terrible Influence on This Country’: Democratic Debate Moderators Pilloried for Centrist Talking Points and Anti-Sanders Bias from politics

#CNNisTrash trending after Dem. debate for biased questions against Bernie Sanders from politics

The third involved the 1988 video seemingly conflicting with Sanders’ supposed statement:

Video emerges of Sanders saying in 1988 a woman could be elected president from politics

That thread’s top comment referenced Sanders’ attempts to draft Warren to run in 2015:

Not long after the debate, commentator Jess McIntosh claimed that Warren’s assertion was not a “he said/she said” debate, as it was reported out:

Anderson Cooper interjected to point out that none of CNN’s sources were present for the purported conversation between Sanders and Warren. As such, Cooper said, the claim was, in fact, a “he said/she said” scenario. Twitter users noted that McIntosh was a Clinton campaign staffer not long after the segment aired; McIntosh was apparently identified before the debate, but not during the post-debate panel discussion:

That portion of the post-debate panel led to discussion of whether the phrase “reported out” had a firm meaning; McIntosh used that particular wording on Twitter during the debate:

To recap, a day before CNN aired the January 14 2020 debate, the network’s website carried a piece titled “Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in private 2018 meeting that a woman can’t win, sources say”; social media users engaged in intense debate over the claim’s veracity. During the debate, a moderator asked Sanders if the claim was true and he denied it, and the same moderator immediately reiterated the claim as if it were independently verified. CNN cited four sources, two of whom heard the story secondhand, and the other two being further from it. Sanders maintained he told Warren the Trump campaign would engage in sexist attacks, and Warren paraphrased his comments as a “woman can’t win.” The only verified element of the 2018 conversation is that Warren and Sanders met to discuss their respective runs. Sanders maintained he did not say a woman could not be elected president, and Warren said he did. Ultimately, the claim was hearsay based on statements made by people not party to the conversation.

However, the way these claims are already being used to create new divides and exacerbate existing issues leads us to believe that the issue is being used as corrosive disinformation regardless of its veracity.