Tulsi Gabbard, the United States Democratic representative from Hawaii, met with Donald Trump immediately after his election in November 2016. Gabbard became one of the first people to talk to him and his Republican camp at their base in Trump Tower in New York, and the first of a handful of Democrats to do so.
One topic of discussion was her possibly becoming the US ambassador to the United Nations.
Now a Democratic candidate for president, Gabbard’s recent public spat with former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has generated new buzz about Gabbard’s foreign policy. That includes revived suggestions that she has ties to Russia.
Gabbard announced today that she is not seeking re-election to Congress in 2020. On her Twitter page, she wrote, among other comments, “As president, I will immediately begin work to end the new cold war & nuclear arms race . . . “
With the sudden increased media attention on Gabbard’s exchange with Clinton, renewed interest has also extended to Gabbard’s unofficial visit in 2017 with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of committing war crimes by murdering his own people. Gabbard has called Assad’s military opponents “terrorists.”
In the 2016 presidential election, Gabbard voted along Democratic party lines, although other voting by her raised eyebrows, such as being one of only three lawmakers — and the only Democrat — to vote against a nonbinding resolution calling out the Assad regime for war crimes and stating that the US should back an international tribunal to prosecute war criminals.
Both Gabbard’s office and Trump’s staff said at the time that the meeting in late 2016 was to discuss positions on such issues as Syria, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), immigration and guns. However, one source who was at the meeting told PassBlue that it was about Gabbard being interviewed for the ambassadorship at the UN.
Gabbard vs. Haley
“Trump reached out to [Nikki] Haley and Tulsi Gabbard, and a couple of others, about the UN,” this person said. “Tulsi Gabbard was amazing. In fact, she was by far the most prepared person we talked to, but Trump just thought Nikki Haley would do a great job and she was being pushed strongly by the Republican establishment.”
Haley got the job, of course, lasting less than two years. (Despite no foreign affairs experience, she wowed the Trump camp by having brought a German carmaker plant to South Carolina when she was governor.) Her successor, Kelly Knight Craft, became the UN ambassador — without Cabinet status, unlike Haley — this summer. Her foreign policy experience amounts to being Trump’s US ambassador to Canada.
From the get-go it was Trump’s plan to make the UN job a Cabinet position — he’s a big fan of the UN, regardless of what he says to feed his conservative base — but after Haley resigned, some top administration officials insisted on downgrading the job.
Several media outlets, including The Hill, reported that the November 2016 meeting with Gabbard was orchestrated by Steve Bannon, prompted by his admiration for her. When Congressional Democrats wrote a public letter condemning Bannon’s appointment in the administration – as Trump’s chief strategist — Gabbard’s was not among the signatures.
Gabbard’s spokesperson did not answer questions for this article.
Clinton vs. Gabbard
The squabble with Clinton and Gabbard began on a recent episode of the Campaign HQ podcast. Clinton said that she thought that the Republicans, with a little help from Russia, were eyeing indirect support of a third-party candidate to run against Trump and the Democratic nominee in the 2020 election. Clinton did not name the possible candidate.
In several battleground states during the 2016 presidential election, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, third-party candidates received votes that were greater than the margin between those for Trump and Clinton.
“I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and they’re grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said. “She’s the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. . . .”
Citing the insecurities of the US electoral system and the ability of remote players to leverage social media and commit cyberwarfare in US politics, Clinton said of Russian interference, “If it worked for them before, why would they quit?”
Gabbard was the only female candidate to rebut the implications, tweeting: “Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain.”
She accused Clinton of trying to derail her presidential bid and destroy her reputation. Gabbard ended on an odd note, urging Clinton — who received the second-most popular votes of any US presidential candidate in history — to run in the presidential primary.
Curiously, billboards in South Carolina promoting Gabbard’s presidential run show no party affiliation in the signage.
Possible bot accounts on social media are actively supporting Gabbard. For instance, when the financier Bill Browder said that Gabbard was one of the few members of Congress to vote against the Magnitsky Act, he received physical threats via tweets. Even offline, links between Gabbard and Russian interests exist.
Chris Cooper, a consultant to her campaign, has led public relations efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act. The bipartisan bill, which is named after a Russian accountant, aims to sanction Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s murder by prohibiting both their entrance into the US and access to the US banking system. Magnitsky was investigating corruption in Russia when he was detained under dubious charges and later died in prison.
The Gabbard campaign also did not return calls regarding Cooper’s campaign role.
According to The Washington Post, Gabbard has suggested working with Russia in the Middle East. Russian state-controlled media outlets, like RT, cover Gabbard in glowing terms.
While she said in an interview with NBC News that she has no control over who defends her on Twitter and elsewhere, she has not denounced the support she has received from Russian-backed cyberpresences.
This article was updated on Oct. 27, 2019.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.