Weeks of Democratic infighting between Nancy Pelosi and 'the Squad' preceded Trump's racist tweet attacks

Pelosi Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) greets Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) before a ceremonial swearing-in picture on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2019.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

  • President Donald Trump's racist tweets directed at four Democrats who are women of color did not occur in a vacuum. 
  • The tweets came after weeks of infighting between the lawmakers and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which the president seemingly wants to exploit ahead of an election year. 
  • The fight between Pelosi and "The Squad" - Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts - is largely a battle for the future of the Democratic party.
  • The intraparty squabbling could have consequences for 2020, as the progressive lawmakers' hardline stances on an array of issues have created a litmus test for candidates. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump's racist tweets directed at four Democratic members of Congress who are women of color followed weeks of infighting between the lawmakers and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

In many ways, Trump seems to be looking to capitalize off of the divisions plaguing House Democrats. The president alluded to the intraparty squabbling in his controversial tweets, in which he suggested the lawmakers should "go back" to their countries of origin (all of them are US citizens and three were born in the US).

As he played off of the racist "go back home" trope, Trump added, "I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!"

Democrats have united behind the lawmakers - Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts - since Trump tweeted about them.

But the solidarity surrounding "the Squad," as the four progressive lawmakers have come to be known on Capitol Hill, may only serve as a band-aid for a wound that's still fresh and came from intentional friendly fire.

The fight between Pelosi and the progressive lawmakers is complicated and there are many interwoven parts and moments.

Here's our best attempt at breaking down what's happening, how Democrats got here, and what it all means for the future of the party. 

What's going on between Nancy Pelosi and 'the Squad'?

The latest battle between Pelosi and "The Squad" largely began in late June as the progressive lawmakers criticized the House Speaker and other Democrats for accepting a Senate version of a nearly $4.6 billion emergency border aid funding bill.

The progressives felt the bill didn't go far enough to address the conditions in the detention facilities being used by the federal government to house migrants, which Ocasio-Cortez refers to as "concentration camps."

Pelosi, who at the time said she "reluctantly" urged House Democrats to pass the bill, was accused by more left-leaning members of caving to Senate Republicans. 

Read more: We asked 13 progressive activists how they plan to vote in 2020 and their answers make it clear that it'll be a brutal primary season ahead

"What we did today is continue to allow the atrocity to take place," Omar said after the bill went through. "We've sent money that we don't know if it's going to continue to be used to put proper beds, to buy toothpaste, to assist these children in any kind of way and their families."

Rep. Ilhan Omar and House Speaker Nancy PelosiRep. Ilhan Omar and House Speaker Nancy PelosiJ. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

This all came as much of the nation responded in horror to the viral image of a dead migrant father and his infant daughter, who drowned in the Rio Grande while attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. 

After the emergency aid bill passed, Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, sent out a tweet attacking moderates in the party and comparing them to segregationist Democrats of the past. Chakrabarti in his tweet singled out Rep. Sharice Davids, one of the first two Native American women to ever serve in Congress. 

"I don't think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system," Chakrabarti wrote. "And the same could even be said of the Southern Democrats. I don't believe Sharice is a racist person, but her votes are showing her to enable a racist system." 

Pelosi wants loyalty, but progressives like Ocasio-Cortez refuse to bend the knee

As progressives were still fuming over the emergency aid bill, Pelosi in an early July interview with The New York Times lambasted Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley. 

"All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn't have any following. They're four people and that's how many votes they got," Pelosi said.

This sparked responses from both Chakrabarti and Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. 

"All these articles want to claim what a legislative mastermind Pelosi is, but I'm seeing way more strategic smarts from freshman members," Chakrabarti tweeted on July 6 after the Speaker's comments were published. "Pelosi is just mad that she got outmaneuvered (again) by Republicans."

Ocasio-Cortez in a subsequent tweet on Monday rejected the notion she shouldn't go against the Speaker in public, stating, "Having respect for ourselves doesn't mean we lack respect for her. It means we won't let everyday people be dismissed."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff Saikat ChakrabartiRep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff Saikat ChakrabartiPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images

Later in the week, Pelosi scolded caucus members for tweeting complaints about other members of the party. 

"You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it," Pelosi reportedly said at the Wednesday caucus meeting. "But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just ok."

Her lecturing was widely viewed as directed at progressive lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez, though a spokesperson for the Speaker said it was not aimed at anyone in particular. 

Ocasio-Cortez then accused Pelosi of "singling out of newly elected women of color" in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, describing the House Speaker's demeanor toward them as "outright disrespectful."

The next day, when asked if she thought Pelosi was motivated by racism, Ocasio-Cortez said "no, no, absolutely not, absolutely not." But the freshman Democrat defended her criticism of the House Speaker, stating, "I think it's really just pointing out a pattern, right?"

"We're not talking just about progressives, it's singling out four individuals and knowing the media environment we're operating in, knowing the amount of death threats we get, knowing the amount of concentration of attention, I think it's worth asking why," she added.

Meanwhile, Pressley described Pelosi's comments as "demoralizing."

The feud was then escalated significantly after the House Democrats' official Twitter account shared a screenshot of Chakrabarti's tweet attacking moderates over the emergency border aid funding bill and laid into him in the process. This really added fuel to the fire. 

 

"Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color? Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice. She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue. Keep Her Name Out Of Your Mouth," the House Democrats' account said in a tweet that was retweeted by Pelosi's deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill. 

Progressives were incensed over the tweet. "It's deeply concerning that House leadership seems to be focused on attacking progressive Democrats who want the party to fight more aggressively against Trump's cruelty at the border," Waleed Shahid, Justice Democrats' communications director, told INSIDER.

Trump's racist tweets attacking the four lawmakers came not long after.  

This is a fight for the direction of the Democratic party

When it comes down to it, this fight is linked to a larger battle between left-leaning progressives like "The Squad" and more moderate Democrats like Pelosi for the broader direction of the party.

The progressives feel that Democrats have been playing politics for too long and need to take more principled stances to address imminent problems, while Pelosi often preaches pragmatism for the sake of what she feels is good for the party in the long-run. This fight has played out over not just immigration but also impeaching Trump, as Pelosi has slammed the brakes and progressives have made impassioned pleas for the party to put the pedal to the metal.

Read more: Progressives blame Nancy Pelosi for 'horrendous' migrant aid bill and holding them back on impeachment

Pelosi at times has also scoffed at progressive policy proposals like the Green New Deal, further driving a wedge between older, centrist Democrats and the younger, firebrand members of the party who are trying to take the reins. 

Omar at the progressive Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia on Saturday said that progressives are aiming to "grab" power from congressional leadership. 

"There's a constant struggle with people who have power about sharing that power," she said, while joined by Tlaib, Pressley, and Rep. Deb Haaland on a panel. "And we are not really in the business of asking to share that power - we are in the business of grabbing that power to return it to the people."

Similarly, Pressley told the conference, "I don't want to bring a chair to an old table. This is the time to shake the table. This is the time to redefine that table."

At the same event, Tlaib told the audience that Democrats are going to "impeach that MFer," in an apparent reference to Trump. 

U.S. Reps Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) hold a news conference after Democrats in the U.S. Congress moved to formally condemn President Donald Trump's attacks on the four minority congresswomen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Erin ScottOcasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib hold news conferenceReuters

What are the consequences for the party and 2020?

Though Democrats may have temporarily united to condemn Trump's tweets, the riff in the party that's been growing in recent months could continue to widen. 

The same day as Trump's tweets went out, an anonymous Democratic group leaked an internal poll to Axios on white non-college-educated "swing voters" showed they have a strong disdain for lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar. The leak prompted progressive groups to accuse Democrats of trying to hurt left-wing members of the party. 

The progressive lawmakers' hardline positions on an array of issues have also created a litmus test for 2020 candidates, which has leaked onto the campaign trail and catalyzed contentious debate over topics like Medicare for All. This might help explain why all but one top-tier 2020 candidate - Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts - avoided this year's Netroots Nation conference.

As Markos Moulitsas, founder of the progressive website Daily Kos, said to Politico on the absence of other 2020 Democrats from the conference: "It's definitely fear, what else? They've known since March that this conference is happening, so don't give me sh-t about scheduling."

Ahead of the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Miami last month, INSIDER sat down with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and, among other topics, asked him about the divisions plaguing the party. 

Perez rejected the notion the party is inherently divided.

"We must never conflate unity and unanimity," Perez told INSIDER. "It's important to recognize what unites us far exceeds what our differences are."  

"Yes, we will have differences of opinion and there will be spirited debate. I've never seen a democratic primary that didn't have spirited debate ... And the good news about that is whoever comes out of this primary with 20-some-odd people in the race is going to be battle-tested and I think that's going to make them a better general election candidate," Perez added. 

Eliza Relman contributed reporting.

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