Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg attacked Bernie Sanders on Monday in a new digital video featuring aggressive and derogatory tweets, memes and videos purportedly posted by the Vermont senator’s online supporters.
The nearly minute-long clip, which will not run on television, closes with a bite of Sanders calling for people “who hold different views” to “engage in a civil discourse.” Text then flashes on-screen, asking, “Really?”
Bloomberg launched the video in response to a recent Sanders’ speech that questioned whether the billionaire former mayor’s record, including his past embrace of “racist policies like stop-and-frisk’,” would ultimately depress Democratic turnout in a general election campaign against President Donald Trump.
The behavior of a section of Sanders campaign’s young and, in many cases, very online base has fueled a backlash from the Vermont senator’s opponents over its often aggressive rhetoric – some of which has crossed the line into outright harassment. But many of Sanders’ supporters have pushed back against what they describe as a bad faith weaponization of the so-called “Bernie bros” phenomenon, often noting the diversity of Sanders’ support.
Bloomberg’s morning blitz touched off a day-long back-and-forth between the two camps. By mid-afternoon, Bloomberg’s campaign manager had charged Sanders’ staff with using “the very same attacks and tactics” employed by President Donald Trump. His statement to reporters went out with the subject line, “BERNIE’S NEW BRO… DONALD TRUMP.” Two hours later, Sanders’ tweeted an image of Bloomberg and Trump – together – on a golf course.
The exchange could mark the beginning of a new chapter in the campaign, with the billionaire Bloomberg unleashing his massive campaign apparatus in an effort to drive down support and discredit the Democratic primary’s current leader in polls and fundraising. Bloomberg has already spent in excess of $400 million since entering the race despite deciding not to contest any of the early states. He will make his first appearance on the ballot in a little more than two weeks on Super Tuesday.
In a statement to CNN, Sanders spokeswoman Sarah Ford condemned the ad and reiterated Sanders’ call for supporters to be civil in their online interactions.
“Sen. Sanders is building a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational movement for justice. We recognize that our opponents in the establishment would like to perpetuate a false myth to discount the breadth and diversity of our supporters – and we categorically reject it,” Ford said. “As the senator has said loudly and clearly, there is no room in the political revolution for abuse and harassment online, and we must live our values of love and compassion.”
Bloomberg campaign spokesperson Galia Slayen responded, saying in a statement, “Our campaign believes we need to unite to defeat Trump in November, but the kind of divisive ‘energy’ being displayed by ‘Bernie Bros’ is not going to get us there.”
Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, in a tweet referencing the ad, took more direct aim at Bloomberg.
“Candidate trying to buy the election is trying to smear candidate trying to win with a people-powered movement,” he wrote.
Sanders has acknowledged the harassment perpetuated by some of his online followers and sought to distance his campaign from their behavior. In February, when he entered the race, Sanders wrote a memo to surrogates urging them to keep their uniforms clean.
“Let us do our very best to engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents ― talking about the issues we are fighting for, not about personalities or past grievances,” Sanders said. “I want to be clear that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space.”
Though most of his top surrogates have adhered to that request, others have, during a number of high profile incidents strayed from it. The most notable outburst came during the controversy over whether Sanders, in a private meeting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2018, said he did not believe a woman could win the presidency. Warren and her supporters were bombarded with snake emojis – suggesting her campaign had intentionally leaked the account to discredit her longtime political ally turned campaign rival – in the aftermath.
One of Sanders’ most prominent endorsers, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, fired back at Bloomberg over the ad on Monday, calling it an attempt to distract from the growing uproar over the former mayor’s record on race relations.
Jayapal, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN’s Dana Bash that she “abhor(s) the online Twitter world” and has been the target of abuse herself, but that she mostly dismissed those messages “because they just aren’t reflective of the real world,” before pointing to Sanders’ repeated calls for civility.
“Bernie has consistently and recently multiple times said he doesn’t want these kinds of people in the movement,” Jayapal said. “But to focus on these folks really erases women and folks of color and the tens of millions of people who literally bring an incredible energy everywhere they go … These women of color, black and brown folks, don’t deserve to have Bloomberg paint us and stereotype us in this way.”
One of the groups singled out in Bloomberg’s video, New York Communities for Change, which recently protested a fundraiser for former Vice President Joe Biden by staging a mock political funeral, apologized for their theater on Monday – “we went too far,” they tweeted – before unloading on Bloomberg.
“Our protest is now being used in a disinformation campaign by Mike Bloomberg. He is spending hundreds of millions to buy the presidency and falsely claiming that we are in support of any presidential candidate,” the group said in a thread on Twitter.
CNN’s Dana Bash and Caroline Kenny contributed to this report