News & Politics

AOC's Chief of Staff Is Out. Is Pelosi to Blame?

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., right, and her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, left, walk back together after joining other members of the freshman class of Congress for a group photo on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) right before the August recess. On Friday, one week later, AOC’s office announced that her chief of staff and early patron, Saikat Chakrabarti, is leaving for a liberal nonprofit focused on the Green New Deal. Chakrabarti had made many high-profile flubs recently, but his worst offense involved a scathing attack on moderate Democrats. It is highly probable that Pelosi asked AOC to oust Chakrabarti in exchange for something AOC wanted.

“Saikat has decided to leave the office of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to work with New Consensus to further develop plans for a Green New Deal,” AOC’s Director of Communications Corbin Trent said in a statement to The Intercept. “We are extraordinarily grateful for his service to advance a bold agenda and improve the lives of the people in NY-14.”

AOC’s office framed his departure as another step in the crusade to bring “progressive” change to America. “From his co-founding of Justice Democrats to his work on the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and in the official office, Saikat’s goal has always been to do whatever he can to help the larger progressive movement, and we look forward to continuing working with him to do just that,” Trent concluded. Chakrabarti also has a new baby, and reportedly will devote more time to parenting. (Having recently become a father, I can sympathize, but I can also say fatherhood does not preclude working a demanding job.)

Perhaps in order to obfuscate from this big news, Ocasio-Cortez broke some more news to The Intercept: Trent is moving from her congressional office to her campaign. He is “shifting to our campaign side so we can work on some ambitious comms projects we’ve been looking forward to working on,” AOC said in a text message. She faces a Republican challenger, Scherie Murray, a New York businesswoman who immigrated from Jamaica as a child.

According to the official narrative, these are two ordinary staff changes: one staffer is moving from the D.C. office to the campaign, and one is moving to a progressive nonprofit. Yet Chakrabarti’s departure is far more significant than AOC is letting on.

After all, Chakrabarti founded Brand New Congress PAC in 2016 and Justice Democrats in 2017. Justice Democrats aimed to get far-left candidates elected to Congress, and AOC was both the beneficiary and the poster child of that effort.

In fact, it appears Chakrabarti gave Ocasio-Cortez a vital influx of cash when the candidate’s hopes for victory seemed dashed. He paid her live-in boyfriend — a web developer — for “marketing” in August 2017.

As Luke Thompson, a podcast host and former staffer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) explained, “At the beginning of October, more than four months into her campaign, AOC’s fundraising had been anemic. Excluding an in-kind contribution from Chakrabarti, she’d raised only $3,032.75 but had already spent $27,591.27 — more than half of which she’d paid to Chakrabarti’s Brand New Congress LLC. By the end of 2017 she’d spent $37,249.94 but raised only $8,361.03.”

“Since no loans are recorded on her campaign books, presumably either AOC or Roberts was fronting the necessary cash,” he added. “It looks to me like Chakrabarti was effectively reimbursing AOC for a third of her expenses with Brand New Congress LLC, perhaps so that she would stay in the race despite her mounting debt.”

The shenanigans with Brand New Congress may get Pelosi in big trouble for violating campaign finance law, but even if it does, AOC owes Chakrabarti a great deal.

She is likely extremely grateful for Chakrabarti. She owes her seat in Congress — and her huge national profile — to this patron, in at least two ways. So when she boots her patron from her office, that’s a big deal. So why did it happen?

In recent weeks, Chakrabarti has been a pain in AOC’s neck.

Early last month, he came under fire for wearing a t-shirt featuring Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist whom Adolf Hitler recognized as the leader of the Free India Government. Bose broadcast Hitler’s propaganda and enlisted tens of thousands of Indians to support the Japanese invasion of British India in 1944 as part of Hitler’s war against Britain. While AOC herself had quoted Evita Perón, the Nazi sympathizer first lady of Argentina, Chakrabarti’s mistake may have irked her.

Also last month, AOC’s then-chief of staff admitted that the Green New Deal “wasn’t originally a climate thing at all.” He added that his office “really” thinks of it “as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” This seemingly confirmed conservatives’ suspicions that the key environmentalist project started as a socialist proposal. As Rush Limbaugh said in 1992, environmentalists are socialists in green clothing.

But Chakrabarti’s sin against Pelosi involved comparing a Native American congresswoman to the Ku Klux Klan.

In late June, Republicans and Democrats squabbled over a pair of bills to fund border agencies desperately in need of money to handle the horde of migrants crossing America’s southern border. House Democrats eventually approved the clean funding bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate, but Pelosi originally had her own bill with limits on the president.

Ocasio-Cortez and her three close allies — Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — refused to vote even for the original Democratic bill, claiming the border security system itself is racist.

In the midst of this battle, Chakrabarti condemned centrist Democrats who voted for the bill as “new Southern Democrats” who “certainly seem hell-bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s,” a potential reference to the Ku Klux Klan. In other words, by abetting law enforcement (the demonized ICE) in enforcing U.S. immigration law and giving them more money to better the conditions at detention facilities, House Democrats were effectively helping a racist terror organization. Another liberal asked if Chakrabarti would apply this even to Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), a Native American of color. He did so.

“I think the point still stands. I don’t think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system. 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,” he tweeted. While he deleted the first tweet, he did not delete the second.

The official House Democrats account attacked Chakrabarti.

“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 account, which aims to represent the House Democratic caucus and is reportedly controlled by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), tweeted. That tweet has since been deleted.

Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, retweeted that message. In other words, it seems highly likely that Pelosi or her staff had a direct beef with Chakrabarti.

Last week, AOC met with Pelosi in a closed-door meeting that the speaker proudly posted in Twitter. PJ Media’s Stephen Kruiser noted that the young congresswoman looks much happier than the speaker of the House.

After the meeting, AOC called the meeting “positive” and “productive,” and said Pelosi “absolutely” understood her concerns. In other words, there was a meeting of the minds.

It appears AOC may have done her part by nixing Chakrabarti — sorry, I mean “politely asking him to go work on the Green New Deal somewhere else.” The real question is, what is Pelosi’s part of the bargain? What does AOC get for this enormous concession?

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.