Elizabeth Warren nearly made a billionaire cry on his favorite television network.
Last week, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate aired an advertisement on CNBC mocking some of the high-profile executives who watch and occasionally appear on the network, specifically targeting their opposition to her new wealth tax plan.
One of those executives is billionaire investor Leon Cooperman, who has frequently criticized Warren, and who, the campaign ad pointed out, was once charged with insider trading.
Hours later, Cooperman responded in kind in an exclusive interview on CNBC.
“I don’t need Elizabeth Warren telling me that I’m a deadbeat and that billionaires are deadbeats,” he said, tearing up on-air. “The vilification of billionaires makes no sense to me. The world is a substantially better place because of Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, David Rubenstein, Bernie Marcus, Ken Langone.”
“This is idiocy. It’s appealing to the lowest common denominator and basically trying to turn people’s heads around by promising a lot of free stuff.”
Since nearly the beginning of her political career, the Massachusetts senator has seemed to revel in turning spats with high-profile financiers into galvanizing moments for her progressive base.
But over the course of her 2020 campaign, Warren has weaponized a billionaire antipathy to her candidacy by taking her personal fight against them to CNBC, the de facto TV home of financial news.
And the battle has gone both ways. In fact, few places have been as fixated on and alarmed by a Warren candidacy as CNBC, which, since launching in 1989—at one point it was helmed by late Fox News chief Roger Ailes—has been a mainstay on television screens on trading floors and in financial firms.
The network’s airwaves have been full of dire predictions about a Warren administration.
Two months ago, CNBC star Jim Cramer made waves when he relayed that Wall Street is “terrified” of the senator. Bankers and CEOs believe Warren has “gotta be stopped,” he said, adding: “I’ve got to tell you, when you get off the desk, you talk to executives, they're more fearful of her winning.”
Last week, Avenue Capital Group co-founder Marc Lasry joined Cooperman on CNBC to bash Warren, warning that a Warren presidency would “cost people a tremendous amount.” Two days earlier, billionaire Paul Tudor Jones said that any Democratic victory in 2020 would negatively impact the stock market, but he singled out Warren over other candidates (and he has previously applauded South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg as “my man”).
Similarly, in recent weeks, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon told CNBC’s Closing Bell that Warren “uses some pretty harsh words, some would say vilifies successful people.” He added: “I think we should applaud successful people.”
And as Warren’s wealth tax proposal became a battleground in the Democratic primary, powerful billionaires lined up on CNBC this week to take a whack at the proposal. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein called the plan “completely unworkable,” adding that he saw Warren’s anti-billionaire CNBC ad while brushing his teeth. In a tweet, he further jabbed, “Maybe tribalism is just in her DNA,” mocking her Native American heritage controversy.
Other financial experts have been welcomed onto the network to jab at the Massachusetts senator. In the past week, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers sounded the alarms that Warren’s tax plan was “approaching confiscatory,” one analyst declared on-air that she had a “lack of understanding” of the financial system, and Wharton School professor Jeremy Siegel declared on-air that Warren’s support comes from a “faulty understanding” of economic history.
There is a recognition, however, among Warren’s team at least, that a seemingly acrimonious relationship with CNBC’s favorite billionaires could ultimately be of mutual benefit.
The network gets to draw in viewers by warning about the perils of a Warren presidency and she, in turn, gets a new bête noire to campaign against or raise money off whenever a billionaire takes to the airwaves to shake in fear over those perils. But the senator’s camp insist that they see engagement with CNBC as much more than an opportunity to trigger the rich. “Anytime we can talk about her wealth tax and her plans to take on corporate interests we will do it,” an aide said. “I think we are trying to convert everybody.”
Still, Warren’s campaign is capitalizing on her ability to set off many of the network’s most notable business guests.
The Warren aide told The Daily Beast that the campaign has regularly received requests from CNBC hosts for the senator to appear on their shows, but the frequency is not notably more or less than other cable news networks.
Though Warren has gone on the network—including a memorable sparring session with Jim Cramer in August 2018—she has not returned since announcing her run for president. But the campaign is not opposed to the idea. In fact, the aide said, they had considered it and even were in talks to do a sit-down interview with John Harwood, one of the network’s main political reporters, though one who is notably less Wall Street-sympathetic than some of his cohorts.
And although CNBC does not have an embed on the campaign, Warren’s aides have worked with their reporters including Brian Schwartz, who consistently publishes scoops about the financial industry’s political machinations and got the exclusive on the ad that the senator’s campaign ran on CNBC.
Meanwhile, CNBC staffers privately enjoy the network’s increased visibility in the 2020 campaign.
Several CNBC staffers told The Daily Beast that they are aware that Warren is using its airwaves to communicate with and directly troll the high-powered executives and traders who regularly tune into the network.
“It’s like putting gasoline on a fire,” one senior network staffer told The Daily Beast.
And some of CNBC’s competitors have even appeared jealous of the high-profile feud and have tried to deepen the rift between Warren and the financial bigwigs who appear on the channel. One day after Warren’s ads aired on CNBC, the Fox Business Network aired a segment blasting the network with a graphic blaring “CNBC Vs. The Rich.”
“Our competition takes money from a socialist to bash the competition’s audience,” FBN host Stuart Varney said (Warren has repeatedly declared that she is a “capitalist,” which has drawn criticism from the left).
Reached by telephone, Cooperman acknowledged to The Daily Beast that some people said his strong, occasionally tearful responses have played directly into Warren’s hands.
But he dismissed the feud as simply “pandering to her base” and said that he was frustrated by Warren’s refusal to respond to a five-page letter he sent to her office, saying she’s been “unable to engage in any intellectual level.”
“I understand what she’s doing,” he said, referencing her tweets. "But anybody who is thoughtful would have to say this is not a person that's presidential.”
–Justin Baragona contributed reporting.