NEVADA (CNN) – Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in one of her strongest debate performances thus far, aggressively and relentlessly called on former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to apologize for his alleged history of misogynistic comments about women and to release women who signed nondisclosure agreements with his company so they could freely speak about their experiences in his employ.
Bloomberg brushed off a question from moderators on Wednedsay night about sexist comments that he allegedly made either to or about women in his company in the 1980s and 1990s by pointing to his record of hiring and promoting women within his company and at City Hall. In one jaw-dropping response, Bloomberg seemed to dismiss queries about gender discrimination and lawsuits against his company, by noting that some women may have been offended by “a joke I told.”
“I didn’t have any tolerance for the kind of behavior that the #MeToo movement has exposed,” Bloomberg said, adding that his company fully investigated any complaints. He added that he was proud that his company was voted one of the best places to work.
“I hope you heard his defense: ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’ ” Warren retorted. “That just doesn’t cut it. … We need to know what’s lurking out there.”
She repeatedly pressed Bloomberg to say how many nondisclosure agreements he had asked women to sign for sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the workplace.
“Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements? So we can hear their side of the story?” Warren said.
“None of them accuse me of doing anything other than — maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg replied. “There’s agreements between two parties that — wanted to keep it quiet. And that’s up to them. They signed those agreements and we’ll live with it.”
Warren sought to pin him down again.
“I want to be clear. Some is how many? And when you say they signed (the agreements), and they wanted them, if they wish now to speak out and tell their side of the story about what it is they alleged, that’s now OK with you? You’re releasing them on television tonight?” she asked.
Bloomberg replied that when the parties made the agreement “they wanted to keep it quiet for everybody’s interests.”
“I’m simply not going to end these agreements because they were made consensually and they have every right to expect they will stay private,” the former New York Mayor said.
“The question is: Are the women bound by being muzzled by you? You could release them from that immediately. Because understand, this is not just a question of the mayor’s character. This is also a question about electability,” Warren said. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has, who knows how many, nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against. That’s not what we do as Democrats.”
Bloomberg in the hot seat
Bloomberg came under fierce attack from Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders within the first few minutes Wednesday’s Democratic debate, taking hits on the exorbitant amount of money he has spent in the presidential race and the misogynistic comments he made about women in the 1980s and 1990s.
The sustained criticism from the Democratic candidates was an intense welcome to the race for Bloomberg, who has spent hundreds of millions on television ads and been holding campaign events without facing the heat of the debate stage as the other candidates have for months. The former New York City mayor has avoided the early states in the race in favor of running a more national primary campaign dependent on the Super Tuesday states that go to the polls in March.
The candidates had telegraphed Wednesday that the former New York mayor’s record on everything from policing techniques to his past party affiliation will be a central focus at the NBC debate on Wednesday at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas. Bloomberg leapfrogged former Vice President Joe Biden in new national poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, landing in second place with 19% behind Sanders, who drew 31%.
Bloomberg is making his debut on the debate stage in Nevada, one of the four early states where he decided not to compete, after spending a stunning $419 million on television ads, which has helped him to meet the polling criteria set by the Democratic National Committee.
Sanders got the first opportunity to take on Bloomberg, and chose to critique the former New York mayor on his embrace of the controversial “stop and frisk” policing policy that disproportionately targeted blacks and Latinos.
“That is not a way that you are going to grow Latino turnout,” Sanders said, adding that America needs an “agenda that works for us and not just the billionaire class.”
Warren had earlier led with an aggressive attack on Bloomberg’s past history of sexist comments, alluding to reports that the mogul referred to women in his employ as ugly, fat and unattractive.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against. A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse faced lesbians. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” Warren said. It’s not clear that Bloomberg ever made that comment, according to a CNN fact check.
After a few minutes of intense criticism, Bloomberg snapped back that he does not believe “there’s any chance whatsoever” that Sanders can win the presidential race against President Donald Trump, because of Sanders’ support for “Medicare for All,” which Bloomberg said would take away private insurance from 160 million people and replace it with a public plan.
“I don’t think there’s any chance whatsoever. And if he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years and we can’t stand that,” Bloomberg said.
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As Bloomberg has risen in the polls, he has confronted heavy media scrutiny of his record, providing ample fodder for his rivals to sift through during the debate. As they vie for minority voters, his rivals will be looking to highlight Bloomberg’s support of New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy as mayor, which disproportionately targeted black and Latino people.
Bloomberg has also been forced to confront misogynistic and sexually crude comments that he used in the workplace in the 1980s and 1990s, some of which ended up in discrimination lawsuits against him.
In a party that has worked hard to broadcast a message of inclusion to the LGBTQ community, Bloomberg referred to transgender people last year as “he, she, or it” and “some guy wearing a dress” while arguing that the party has become too deeply mired in social issues, as BuzzFeed first reported on Tuesday.
A tense night
While Bloomberg was the focus of many barbs, the other candidates didn’t spare each other from withering criticism throughout the night.
Warren, who is attempting to mount a comeback as she continues to drop in the polls, described former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s health care plan as a “Power Point” presentation and compared Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s plan to a Post-it note.
But Warren went on criticize Sanders’ handling of Medicare for All, charging that “his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone everyone who asks a question or asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work,” Warren said. “And then his own advisers say it probably won’t happen anyway. Look, health care is a crisis in this country. … We need as much help for as many people as quickly as possible.”
Buttigieg seized the opportunity to call out Klobuchar for not being able to name the President of Mexico in a recent interview with Telemundo, arguing that her Washington experience as a senator had not given her the tools to talk about one of America’s most important trading partners.
Klobuchar explained the moment as “momentary forgetfulness.”
“I said I made an error,” Klobuchar said. “I think having a president that maybe is humble and is able to admit that here … wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
But Buttigieg interjected: “You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade. You’re literally in the part of the committee that’s overseeing these things.”
Klobuchar turned on Buttigieg: “Are you trying to say I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here, Pete? I said I made an error. People sometimes forget names.”
“This is a race for president,” Buttigieg replied.
Warren came to Klobuchar’s defense, calling the criticism “not right.”
“Let’s be clear. Missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what is going on,” Warren said.
Buttigieg had also questioned whether Sanders was doing enough to keep his supporters from harassing others online.
Sanders said he has more than 10 million followers on Twitter, and, “If there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people, they are not part of our movement.”
Buttigieg turned to Sanders and said he believed that the senator disowns the attacks and didn’t personally direct them.
“But at a certain point,” Buttigieg continued, “you’ve got to ask yourself: Why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters?”
“I don’t think it is especially the case, by the way,” Sanders said. He said women on his campaign have experienced “the most ugly sexist, racist attacks” on social media.
Sanders cited Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including social media troll farms that worked to affect voters’ moods during the campaign, and said, “I’m not saying that’s happening. But it would not shock me.”