Ocasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezFive takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? Ocasio-Cortez to endorse Sanders for president MORE’s (D-N.Y.) chief of staff has become a lightning rod within the caucus for his Twitter attacks on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Democratic debate starts with immediate question on Trump impeachment White House, Pentagon, Giuliani reject House subpoenas MORE (D-Calif.) and other members of the party.

In recent weeks, Saikat Chakrabarti has tweeted messages suggesting Pelosi is an ineffective legislator, that a Native American lawmaker voted “to enable a racist system” and that moderate Democrats are modern-day segregationists because they backed a Senate border aid bill. 

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It’s all put additional pressure on Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who has taken Congress by storm.

“That’s just a terrible statement to make. That’s a terrible statement to make,” Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksHouse Democrat urges anti-Trump resistance within administration to come 'out of the shadows' Ten notable Democrats who do not favor impeachment Embattled Juul seeks allies in Washington MORE (D-N.Y.), a Congressional Black Caucus member, said of Chakrabarti’s segregationists tweets. “Somebody’s got to be held accountable. If my staff did something that was not right, then I have to handle my staff.”

“The question is: Do you think it’s appropriate for your staff to say something like that?” added Meeks, who in recent days has threatened to back a primary challenger against Ocasio-Cortez.

The extraordinary nature of Chakrabarti’s internecine barbs prompted an unprecedented counterattack on Friday by Democratic leaders, highlighting the extent to which the 33-year-old liberal activist has gotten under the skin of his boss’s colleagues.

It is highly unusual for a Democratic aide to attack Democratic lawmakers by name on social media, but Chakrabarti isn’t your traditional aide. He’s a Harvard alum and tech entrepreneur who left Silicon Valley to focus on progressive activism, helped recruit Ocasio-Cortez to Congress as a leader of the insurgent group Justice Democrats and is now emerging as a political celebrity in his own right.

Chakrabarti’s outspoken style — combined with his history fighting to topple incumbent Democrats deemed too conservative to bear the party brand — has made him a target of fierce new scrutiny while raising questions about his longevity on Capitol Hill. 

“Do I think AOC’s chief of staff needs to be fired? Of course I do,” said a moderate Democratic lawmaker. “Who is in charge in that office? Is she unable to fire him for his racist comments?”

Another Democratic lawmaker added: “My chief would have the honor to resign” if he tweeted those things. 

Chakrabarti is a “snot-nosed punk” who doesn’t have a clue about the liberal battles the grizzled 79-year-old Speaker has led over the years, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who served under Pelosi as head of the House Democratic Caucus and campaign arm, said in an interview with The New York Times.

Neither Chakrabarti nor Ocasio-Cortez’s spokesman responded to a request for comment on Monday.

Verbal spats between members of Congress have become almost a daily occurrence in the Capitol — especially in the age of Twitter.

But a senior Democratic aide said it was “unheard of” for a chief of staff — or any Hill staffer — to repeatedly and publicly launch broadsides against lawmakers in their own party without any consequences. In 2013, then-Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Five ways Trump's Syria decision spells trouble Cheney slated to introduce bill to place sanctions on Turkey MORE (R-La.) fired his executive director, Paul Teller, for working with conservative groups to pressure Republicans to oppose the budget deal spearheaded by Republican Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials Democrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate MORE (Wis.) and Democratic Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocrats urge Rick Perry not to roll back lightbulb efficiency rules Biz groups say Warren labor plan would be disaster Freedom of the press under fire in Colorado MORE (Wash.).

The Democratic aide echoed the moderate lawmaker, suggesting that Chakrabarti has not been reprimanded by Ocasio-Cortez because he and his group, Justice Democrats, helped propel the former New York bartender to victory last year and he’s the one pulling the strings in her office.

“I have never seen a staffer insult multiple members multiple times and keep his job. It’s unheard of,” the aide added.

Chakrabarti has never been known to pull punches, but he gained a new notoriety in recent weeks as Democrats were squabbling over the Senate’s $4.6 billion border funding bill, which liberals opposed because it lacked provisions explicitly designed to protect migrant children being detained by federal authorities. 

Taking to Twitter, Chakrabarti (56,000 followers) accused the moderate Democrats supporting the Senate bill of seeming “hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.” He quickly deleted the tweet, but not before it had reverberated across Capitol Hill, angering Democrats of all ideological stripes. 

Pelosi responded last week during a closed-door caucus meeting, where she scolded her troops for attacking each other on social media. A day later, she clarified her message was in response to Chakrabarti’s “Southern Democrats” tweet. 

“Our members took offense at that,” she said. “I addressed that.” 

On Friday, Democratic leaders tapped the caucus’s official Twitter account to attack Chakrabarti for a weeks-old tweet targeting freshman Rep. Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsHere are the Democrats who aren't co-sponsoring an assault weapons ban Centrist House Democrats press for committees to follow pay-go rule Ocasio-Cortez chief of staff to leave her office MORE (D-Kan.), a gay Native American mixed martial arts fighter, for her support of the Senate border bill. Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats had backed Davids’s challenger, Brent Welder, in last year’s Democratic primary. 

“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?” read the message under the House Democrats account, which is managed by the office of Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse chairman: Pompeo not complying with impeachment inquiry Sunday shows - Second whistleblower grabs spotlight Top House Democrat: 'We have Trump appointees who are clearly unnerved by the lawlessness of this president' MORE (D-N.Y.). 

“Keep her name out of your mouth.”

Chakrabarti is not the only focus of Democratic frustration surrounding the saga. A number of aides and lawmakers are furious that party leaders utilized the House Democrats’ official Twitter account to go after a staffer — a move some described as a “naive” and “amateur” political strategy that only highlights party divisions.

“They literally looked at a smart, politically savvy way [to push back], gave it the finger, and then turned around and were like, ‘How can we be as immature and JV as possible?’ ” said one Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “Our caucus cannot be focused on beating AOC’s chief of staff. It is a terrible waste of time. If the goal is to get this guy fired, then what are we doing with our majority?”

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As a result, the aide continued, Chakrabarti is now more likely to keep his job — and continue to press for the Justice Democrats’ polarizing agenda. 

“They truly buy into the idea that they are here on a mission and part of a movement, and they don’t care what you think of their movement. So she’s probably not going to fire him, and now she has a really good out. ... She would look like she was capitulating to bullying from leadership if she did it now,” the aide said. 

Jeffries’s chief spokesman, Michael Hardaway, confirmed that the tweet was deliberate: “It was not an accident.” 

The tweet cost nothing to send, Hardaway said, and was intended to defend Democratic lawmakers from spurious allegations.

“Not a single House Democrat resembles a racist segregationist from the Jim Crow South. Not one. We confronted an incendiary charge that required a measured response,” Hardaway said on Monday. “Hopefully, in terms of the entire staff dynamic, the matter is settled and everyone can focus on the real enemy at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

Hardaway declined to discuss internal deliberations with his boss about how the tweet came about. But it appeared to be sanctioned by the top Democratic leadership: The tweet was retweeted by Drew Hammill, who oversees communications and messaging for Pelosi. 

After coming under fire from the left, Hammill told reporters he retweeted the caucus tweet “in my personal capacity as a gay man who was bullied and beaten in high school.”

--This report was updated at 7:34 a.m.