Tom Steyer, who got stuck in the middle of the viral exchange, said it was "one of those awkward moments"

By Sean Neumann
January 15, 2020 10:32 AM

Well that was “awkward” — at least according to Tom Steyer.

After Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren shook hands with fellow candidates Steyer and former Vice President Joe Biden. But then things got unusual: She headed toward Sen. Bernie Sanders but bypassed his outreached hand and instead engaged in a quick conversation that was caught on camera — and looked a bit tense.

What exactly was said remains unclear, but the interaction came after days of rising tensions between the campaigns in the final weeks before primary voting begins. Sanders and Warren, longtime friends, share many progressive values and are seen as competing over similar groups of voters.

On Monday, Warren said that Sanders once told her in a private meeting that he thought a woman couldn’t win in 2020 against President Donald Trump, which Sanders has vigorously denied.

After the debate, Steyer was asked by CNN what occurred between the two senators since he walked into the middle of it. He demurred.

“I was just going up to say ‘good night Sen. Sanders’ and I felt like, okay, there’s something going on here. Good night, I’m out of here,” Steyer told Anderson Cooper. “I really wasn’t listening. They were talking about getting together or something. I really didn’t listen. I really — it was one of those awkward moments where I felt like, you know, I need to move on as fast as possible.”

The Warren campaign is not commenting.

Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE but his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told The Washington Post that Warren “came to raise a concern, and he said let’s talk about that later.”

The video of the candidates’ post-debate exchange was widely shared on social media, though there wasn’t clear audio to show what Warren, 70, and Sanders, 78, were talking about. Steyer insisted he wasn’t listening.

Their conflicting accounts about that earlier private meeting, in December 2018, were at the center of a debate question on Tuesday night. Sanders was asked about it and again said it wasn’t true; Warren said he had said that but she “disagreed” with him.

She then pivoted to touting the election viability of herself and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the only other woman on the stage.

“Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States,” Sanders said at the debate. “Go to YouTube today. There’s a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States.”

Elsewhere at the debate, Sanders pushed back against Warren when she said he hadn’t beaten a Republican in an election in 30 years.

From left: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders at Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate
| Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

The Sanders-Warren tiff follows aPolitico report that the Sanders campaign had issued talking points to volunteers to tell voters that people who support Warren are “highly educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”

Warren said that she was “disappointed” Sanders would send volunteers to “trash” her, while Politico further reported that the Sanders campaign didn’t “challenge the authenticity” of the script but declined to comment on the story.

Tuesday’s debate was the last one before the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3.