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

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezAyanna Pressley's 'squad' of congresswomen offers support after she opens up about alopecia Here are the 10 senators who voted against Trump's North American trade deal Artist paints Michelle Obama, other women as battered in campaign against domestic violence MORE’s (D-N.Y.) chief of staff has become a lightning rod within the caucus for his Twitter attacks on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment Trump chooses high-profile but controversial legal team Trump: Impeachment timing intended to hurt Sanders 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 MeeksOcasio-Cortez defends decision not to pay dues to House Democratic campaign arm Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Facebook deepfake ban falls short | House passes bills to win 5G race | Feds sound alarm on cyberthreat from Iran | Ivanka Trump appearance at tech show sparks backlash House Democrats urge financial regulators to defend against Iranian cyberattacks 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 ScaliseTrump welcomes LSU to the White House: 'Go Tigers' Republicans criticize Pelosi for gifting pens used to sign impeachment articles The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment trial a week away; debate night 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 RyanEsper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Latinos say they didn't benefit from Trump tax cuts — here's why Conservative commentator rips Trump's signature tax overhaul: 'It was a big mistake' MORE (Wis.) and Democratic Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim Democrats ask if US citizens were detained at border checkpoints due to Iranian national origin Overnight Health Care: Trump knocks 'mini Mike Bloomberg' over health care | Appeals court skeptical of Trump rule on TV drug ads | Oklahoma sues opioid distributors 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 DavidsHaaland, Davids included in 'Jeopardy' clue for historic first as Native American congresswomen The Hill's Morning Report - Vulnerable Dems are backing Trump impeachment Vulnerable Democrats signal support for impeachment articles this week 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 JeffriesThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems to lay out impeachment case to senators next week Seven things to know about the Trump trial House delivers impeachment articles to Senate 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.