Three separate clips of the back-and-forth on YouTube combine for over 900,000 views, and a clip by HuffPost, which was the first to report on the exchange, has generated well over 200,000 views. It was Warren's first foray on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
The question that flummoxed the bank regulators: When was the last time you took a Wall Street bank to trial?
Heartbreaking hilarity ensued:
"We do not have to bring people to trial," Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, assured Warren, declaring that his agency had secured a large number of "consent orders," or settlements.
"I appreciate that you say you don't have to bring them to trial. My question is, when did you bring them to trial?" she responded.
"We have not had to do it as a practical matter to achieve our supervisory goals," Curry offered.
Warren turned to Elisse Walter, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who said that the agency weighs how much it can extract from a bank without taking it to court against the cost of going to trial.
"I appreciate that. That's what everybody does," said Warren, a former Harvard law professor. "Can you identify the last time when you took the Wall Street banks to trial?"
"I will have to get back to you with specific information," Walter said as the audience tittered.
Warren asked if any of the other regulators, representing the FDIC, SEC, OCC, CFTC, Fed, Treasury and the newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Board, could answer the question. None could.
"There are district attorneys and United States attorneys out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I'm really concerned that 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial,'" Warren told them in what appeared to be a reference to a Warren constituent, open-Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who recently committed suicide after being hounded by federal prosecutors who reportedly said they wanted to make an example of him. Warren had met and said she admired Swartz. After he died, she expressed her concern by attending his memorial in Washington.
Wall Street responded angrily to Warren's questioning, denouncing the senator and suggesting that she would lose "credibility" if she continued interrogating regulators in such a way.
The financial regulators can blame, at least in part, those very same angry Wall Street lobbyists (along with outgoing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Senate Republicans) for their embarrassing turn at the hearing. Warren would have been on the panel herself representing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, instead of a sitting senator, if her nomination to head the agency hadn't been thwarted in 2011.
Before her exchange with the regulators, Warren's previous top Internet hit was a clip of her articulating the social contract, arguing that nobody has gotten rich on their own. President Obama later picked up the theme during the campaign, which devolved into the GOP rallying cry of "You didn't build that."