From the moment the debate began, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made it clear: Sometime in the next two hours, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg would have to confront allegations about the way he’s treated women.
And she would be the one to make him do it.
“I want to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said, at her first opportunity to speak. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump — I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
The major confrontation between Warren and Bloomberg, though, didn’t come until later, when moderators asked Bloomberg directly about his alleged mistreatment of women. Hallie Jackson of NBC and MSNBC cited a recent Washington Post article that details a series of sexist comments attributed to Bloomberg in a booklet given to him in 1990 by an employee as a gag gift.
As the article points out, Bloomberg has also come under demands that he release former employees and complainants from their nondisclosure agreements, some of whom have said they feared retaliation if they spoke out. Several lawsuits have been filed alleging that women were discriminated against at Bloomberg’s business-information company, but those remain under wraps because of confidential settlements.
In light of the #MeToo movement, such agreements have come under scrutiny — many women’s rights activists argue that they work to silence women regarding sexism or harassment.
Responding on Tuesday night, Bloomberg defended himself, citing the large numbers of women he employs in leadership positions.
And that’s when Warren brought up the nondisclosure agreements.
“I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” Warren said.
Bloomberg rolled his eyes.
“He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements, both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace. So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?”
“We have a very few nondisclosure agreements — ” Bloomberg attempted to answer.
“How many is that?” Warren asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Let me finish,” Bloomberg said. “None of them accused me of doing anything other than — maybe they didn’t like the joke I told.”
Bloomberg continued on, raising his voice over audible boos from the audience. He explained that both parties made the decision to enter into the nondisclosure agreements. If the women involved “wanted to keep it quiet,” he said, that was “up to them.”
But Warren wasn’t quite finished.
“So I just want to be clear: ‘Some’ is how many?” The audience cheered, and Warren pressed on.
“And when you say they signed them … if they wish now to speak out and tell their side of the story about what it is they allege, that’s now okay with you, you’re releasing them on television tonight?”
After Bloomberg reiterated his argument — that these agreements were entered into voluntarily — Warren turned to face the audience, and the cameras.
“Understand, this is not just a question about the mayor’s character,” she said. “This is a question about electability. 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.”
The audience seemed to agree, erupting into what were perhaps the loudest cheers of the night.
To some, it seemed that Warren, who has been dropping in national polls, came to the stage with a clear plan.
Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson weighed in, praising NBC for challenging Bloomberg on his nondisclosure agreements. In 2016, Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News founder and former chairman Roger Ailes.
If that hypothetical exchange were to play out anything like the one tonight, Warren would come out looking pretty good, according to many who weighed in. And while Warren has delivered what many consider strong debate performances since the summer, she has yet to have a real “moment” on the debate stage. Some viewers think this might have been it.