There is no love lost between the House of Representatives’ most famous progressive — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — and Washington’s most powerful pro-Israel group — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
All of which makes it that much more intriguing to learn that AIPAC was once open to working with Ocasio-Cortez.
In fact, following her stunning Democratic primary win against then-Rep. Joe Crowley in June 2018, AIPAC reached out to Ocasio-Cortez with a whole lot more than an olive branch, Ryan Grim reports in his new book, “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution.” The book is a richly reported account of how the House’s most outspoken bloc of left-wing lawmakers, and the movement they represent, have fared in the nation’s capital.
Grim’s tale of the AIPAC-AOC meeting that wasn’t is delivered with the author’s signature nonchalance.
It all went down when Ocasio-Cortez was on the road. Just weeks after her win, the newly designated Democratic nominee in New York’s deep-blue 14th congressional district had decided to use her victory to help other progressive upstarts running for Congress. Her first two stops were in Kansas, where she joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to stump for a couple of populist congressional hopefuls who would not end up joining them on Capitol Hill.
Grim, who as Washington bureau chief for The Intercept has earned his stripes as the Beltway’s resident AOC-ologist, is the first to report that Ocasio-Cortez’s spokesperson at the time, Corbin Trent, received a call during that trip from someone who identified himself as a representative of AIPAC in New York.
The person said he could raise $100,000 for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign in short order with more to come, as a gesture of goodwill that might “start the conversation” about her views on Israel. Ocasio-Cortez had already done an interview with Margaret Hoover on PBS’s “Firing Line,” in which she conceded that while she opposes Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, she was “not the expert” on the topic.
Here is the key excerpt from Chapter 2 of Grim’s book, entitled, “A Brand New Congress”:
While in Kansas, the campaign got its first taste of what Washington was going to be like. A representative of AIPAC called Corbin Trent and told him there was $100,000 ready to be handed over to Ocasio-Cortez to “start the conversation” with the organization, with much more than that to come. Chakrabarti and AOC both told me they were shocked at the offer. The campaign was flush with cash and it was rejected out of hand. “I was expecting the corruption to be much more subtle,” Trent recalled. “This was basically a bag filled with cash.”
HuffPost followed up with Trent, who confirmed his memory of what occurred.
“The implication was that her positions could be repaired with conversations, that her positions where based on a lack of information and lack of proximity to enough of a variety of people,” Trent recalled.
But Ocasio-Cortez saw AIPAC as one of the special interests whose influence she had run to diminish. And by that time, she was already on her way to being an online fundraising powerhouse, thanks to her grassroots appeal.
Saikat Chakrabarti, who would become the lawmaker’s chief of staff, likewise confirmed his memory of when Trent brought it up.
AIPAC denied to HuffPost that any of its representatives reached out to Ocasio-Cortez’s team this way.
“This is the first time AIPAC is ever hearing of this story,” said Marshall Wittman, spokesperson for AIPAC. “To the extent it ever happened, it did not involve AIPAC.”
There is a way in which it’s possible that all sides are telling the truth about what happened.
Prior to the 2022 election cycle, AIPAC was mainly a lobbying and education operation, whose involvement in electoral politics, while deeply influential, was a decentralized affair not officially sanctioned by the organization.
Local representatives of AIPAC typically request meetings with candidates and campaign officials to start a relationship and size up their openness to a broadly pro-Israel agenda. They would then encourage the candidate to draft a two-page policy paper highlighting things like their personal connection to Israel, support for its right to exist and defend itself, and opposition to placing conditions on the annual U.S. military aid package to Israel.
Once the paper is out, it would make its way to big donors and independent but AIPAC-aligned political action committees capable of raising large sums for candidates. That could be one way in which an AIPAC-affiliated megadonor, or bundler of campaign donations, was able to offer Ocasio-Cortez a six-figure campaign check without AIPAC knowing about it.
That all changed in the run-up to the 2022 elections, when AIPAC inaugurated its first-ever political action committee, which provides the group’s official endorsements, and a super PAC capable of raising and spending unlimited sums in elections. AIPAC’s super PAC alone spent more than $33 million on elections in the 2022 cycle, and a report in Slate projects that figure to grow to $100 million in the 2024 cycle.
The news of a self-described AIPAC representative’s offer to Ocasio-Cortez — and AIPAC’s denial that such an offer took place — comes amid growing scrutiny of how AIPAC and other like-minded pro-Israel groups try to influence elections. Hill Harper, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Michigan, revealed in late November that an AIPAC-affiliated donor offered him $20 million to drop out of the Senate race and challenge Palestinian American Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). AIPAC denies making or sanctioning that offer as well.
Although many polls over the years have shown that a bipartisan majority of Americans support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, pro-Israel groups have used campaign cash to arrest the rise of a growing number of progressive members of Congress who would like the United States to leverage its aid to change Israeli policies, including by demanding a cease-fire — or, at least, more regard for Palestinian civilians — in the current war in Gaza.
Trent, a former food truck owner from Eastern Tennessee who has now mostly retired from politics, told HuffPost that while he disagrees with AIPAC’s policy goals, his brief experience with them was not entirely disenchanting. He respected their wiliness and persistence in trying to co-opt a progressive adversary.
“Bernie and all these folks go on and on about AIPAC and how it’s terrible, and how they want to get money out of politics,” Trent said. “And while I don’t disagree that we should come up with some sort of system of reform, I think while you have people that are capable of raising hundreds of millions of dollars [like Bernie and AOC], maybe they could be competitive, and try to persuade people through marketing and discussion.”