Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign announced Tuesday that it had hired Denver-based liberal journalist David Sirota as a senior communications adviser and speechwriter, among more than a dozen top national staffers added to the Democrat's organization.
That's when Twitter erupted and the charges started flying.
An article by The Atlantic's Edward-Isaac Dovere posted Tuesday afternoon accused Sirota of informally advising Sanders for months — all while ravaging other Democratic presidential candidates in articles and on social media — but Sirota roundly denied that's what happened in an exclusive interview with Colorado Politics.
Along the way, tens of thousands of Sirota's tweets vanished overnight from the Twitter archives, an occurrence Dovere suggested was a clumsy response to his inquiries but Sirota said was simply an automated, routine deletion he's been doing for nearly a year.
By mid-afternoon, "Sirota" was a top-trending topic on Twitter, behind only an acquisition by the Dallas Cowboys and a new gaming platform unveiled by Google.
Sirota worked for Sanders as his press secretary two decades ago when the Vermont independent was in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since then, they've remained close — Sanders endorsed Sirota's wife, Emily, when she mounted a successful run for the heavily Democratic House District 9, and he appeared at an October fundraiser in Denver for a progressive donor committee she organized. (Earlier this month, Emily Sirota endorsed Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.)
In a letter posted to social media Tuesday morning, Sirota said he'll miss working as a journalist, but "when Bernie asked me to join his campaign, I felt I could not turn that request down, because I genuinely believe that the future of our country, our planet and our children are at stake in this election."
Sirota has been cutting a divisive and sometimes flamboyant path across left-leaning circles in Colorado for more than a decade, from his days as a nationally syndicated columnist and local talk radio host — presiding over the AM-760 "progressive dojo" — when he regularly took Democrats to task for championing positions he deemed insufficiently progressive.
Sirota, an investigative journalist in recent years for The Guardian and other outlets, landed at the center of a controversy in December over articles and online posts he wrote about Beto O'Rourke's history of siding with Republicans when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the Texan's record of raising top dollars from the oil and gas industry.
Some Democrats accused Sirota, a former Sanders aide, of attacking a potential Sanders primary opponent — neither Sanders nor O'Rourke had entered the race yet — with Neera Tanden, president of the think tank Center for American Progress tweeting: "This is seriously dangerous. We know Trump is in the White House and attacking Dems is doing Trump's bidding."
Sirota swung back hard, blasting critics for what he said was mischaracterizing as an attack the kind of reporting he's done for years — holding neo-liberal Democrats' feet to the fire.
The argument, which raged on Twitter for weeks, raised fears that the 2020 Democratic primary could be as bloody as the last one, when Sanders and eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — and their aggressive supporters — battled over the party's mantle.
The fracas revived Tuesday following the Sanders campaign's announcement, which was greeted with derision from some quarters and applause from others, but the volume amped up considerably after Dovere tweeted a link to his article, "Bernie Sanders Just Hired His Twitter Attack Dog."
The attacks rained down on Sirota from the right, too, including a post on Reason magazine's "Hit and Run" blog pointing out that Sirota once praised Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez's "economic miracle."
But it was Dovere's story that blew up.
Dovere tweeted that Sirota "has been quietly writing speeches and advising (Sanders) for months without disclosing it but while bashing pretty much every candidate in the field."
Shortly after announcing his 2020 campaign, Dovere noted, Sanders cautioned surrogates and key supporters against trashing primary opponents, in an email first obtained by the Huffington Post:
“As we engage with our opponents in the Democratic primary, we will forcefully present our views and defend ourselves against misrepresentations. But, let us do our very best to engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents ― talking about the issues we are fighting for, not about personalities or past grievances. I want to be clear that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space," Sanders wrote.
According to Dovere, Sirota had been waging rhetorical war against many of Sanders's Democratic opponents and deflected criticism by pointing to his status as a journalist. Most of Sirota's attacks had been aimed at O'Rourke, Dovere wrote, but he'd also "bashed Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, Mike Bloomberg, and even Andrew Cuomo."
The article quoted Sanders campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, who said Sirota had been working in an informal advisory role for the campaign for months before his hiring on March 11, described as a "trial period to see how the senator, who famously likes to write every word that he says himself, would work with a speechwriter."
In an email to Colorado Politics, Shakir declined to comment beyond saying Dovere's characterization of Sirota's work informally advising the Sanders campaign "for months" was wrong.
According to a timetable provided by Shakir, Sirota resigned his previous position on Feb. 14, began informally advising the campaign Feb. 20 (the day after Sanders made his bid official) and signed formal paperwork to become the campaign's speechwriter on March 11.
Sirota pushed back hard in an interview with Colorado Politics shortly after the Dovere article posted, maintaining The Atlantic had the timeline all wrong and was mangling what had actually happened.
He insisted that he'd had nothing to do with the Sanders campaign when he was writing articles critical of Democrats for The Guardian — work that concluded at the end of December, the newspaper's editor said — because there was no Sanders campaign until only shortly before Sanders formally launched with an announcement to supporters on Feb. 19.
Sirota acknowledged that in mid- to late February he was kicking around some themes and ideas for speeches with Sanders, including some points that made it into speeches Sanders delivered, but rejected any suggestion he'd been doing anything more than talking with someone he's known for years, including discussions about a possible role in a campaign that had yet to materialize.
An exasperated-sounding Sirota scoffed at the notion that he'd been secretly working for Sanders by writing the kind of articles he's been penning for more than a dozen years.
It should come as no surprise, he added, that Sanders hired someone to work on his communications team who hasn't been shy about aggressively defending progressive principles, from battling climate change to fighting for economic equality.
As for the deleted tweets, which Dovere alleged disappeared after he spoke with Sirota Monday night about his role with the campaign, Sirota said he's been using an auto-delete program that routinely purges old tweets, ever since a Washington Post columnist suggested last summer that journalists and other public figures do so.
According to a monitoring application, more than 20,000 of Sirota's tweets were removed from Twitter late Monday, leaving just over 100 that have been posted to the platform since Feb. 17.
In those tweets, covering the period since a few days before Sanders launched his campaign, Sirota doesn't mention any other Democratic presidential candidates except a couple times in passing. He tweeted several times about the congressional Green New Deal and Colorado legislation designed to regulate oil and gas operations, as well as other political news.
Soon after the online discussion about his hire took off, Sirota posted a screenshot showing he was trending on Twitter, adding: "Hey Twitter: I assure you, I am not this interesting."
Instead, he suggested paying attention to his wife, state Rep. Emily Sirota — "especially as she and her Democratic colleagues right now fight for landmark legislation to protect people's health and safety."