Sanders aide pushes back against CBS switch to foreign policy focus for debate

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Hunter Walker
·White House Correspondent
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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and strategist Mark Longabaugh. (Photo: John Locher/AP-Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)

DES MOINES, Iowa — The fireworks actually began flying a few hours before Saturday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University.

A top aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., one of the three candidates, got into a lengthy dispute with executives from CBS, the network hosting the debate, during a conference call on Saturday morning. A staffer for one of the other campaigns who was also on the call described the exchange to Yahoo News as “heated” and even “bizarre,” and a second source on the call confirmed the nature of the exchange.

The dispute centered on CBS’s decision to increase the emphasis on terrorism, foreign policy, and national security in the wake of the attacks that left more than 100 people dead in Paris on Friday night. According to the rival staffer, Sanders strategist Mark Longabaugh lit into CBS vice president and Washington bureau chief Christopher Isham when the changes to the debate were detailed on the call.

“It was a little bit of a bizarre scene. The Sanders representative, you know, really laid into CBS and basically … kind of threw, like, a little bit of a fit and said, ‘You are trying to turn this into a foreign policy debate. That’s not what any of us agreed to. How can you change the terms of the debate, you know, on the day of the debate. That’s not right,’” the staffer recounted.

Another person who was on the call confirmed to Yahoo News that Longabaugh had a lengthy dispute about the changed plans for the debate format during the call with CBS. The Sanders campaign declined to comment.

The rival staffer said the CBS representatives on the call argued they were not completely switching the focus for the debate.

“The CBS folks were like, ‘Look, we’re not turning this into a foreign policy debate. We’re going to reorder the questions so that we’re leading off with a foreign policy focus based on what happened last night,’” the rival staffer said.

According to the staffer, representatives for the two other candidates, Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chimed in to say, “We completely agree with CBS.” The staffer said Longabaugh was “hot” and had his voice “raised.” The staffer said Longabaugh described the changes as “not right” and noted that CBS originally offered the candidates an opening that was more “open-ended,” where they “could talk about the basis for our campaign.”

“He got very hot, and there was, like, a five- or seven-minute back-and-forth, and he just wouldn’t let it go,” the staffer said, adding, “The CBS guy got annoyed enough to the point where he said, ‘Look, you know, what you’re saying makes no sense. There was a terrorist attack in Paris, and of course we have to change the way the debate is structured, and we’re not, you know, making this a foreign policy debate.’”

Despite the objections from the Sanders campaign, the rival staffer said the debate will move forward with the emphasis on the attacks.

“There’s going to be a one-minute or so opening, basically open-ended statement from each of the candidates so they can address Paris,” the staffer said. “Then they’re going to have the first 20-minute segment be foreign-policy focused because of what happened in Paris, and then they’re going to go back to the debate as it was normally structured.”