Hawaii Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard met with President-elect Donald Trump in New York on Monday amid speculation that Gabbard is being considered for a high-level job in the Trump administration, including a possible appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Erika Tsuji, spokeswoman for Gabbard, said Gabbard “is not seeking a job” but would not rule out the possibility that Gabbard might join the Trump administration were she offered a position.
“Tulsi did not meet with president-elect Trump seeking a job, nor did he offer her one,” Tsuji said in written comments Monday afternoon. “She loves the job she has, serving the people of Hawaii in Congress.”
Tsuji on Friday denied rumors that Gabbard is being vetted for a Trump administration post, saying that Gabbard “just got re-elected and is focused on serving Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.”
However, The New York Times reported Monday that Gabbard, 35, is being considered for several positions, including ambassador to the U.N. The Times cited an unidentified senior Trump aide as its source, and CNN’s Sara Murray tweeted that “a source tells me (Gabbard is) under consideration for State, Defense &UN Ambassador.”
McClatchyDC.com reported that Gabbard met with Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Monday, but Trump spokesman Jason Miller said it was “premature” to discuss Gabbard’s potential role in the Trump administration.
Speculation among Washington, D.C., insiders focused on the possibility that Gabbard could be appointed to the U.N. ambassador’s position, but Gabbard did not respond to requests for comment Monday about what position, if any, she would consider.
Gabbard did release a written statement Monday saying that she was invited by Trump to the meeting at Trump Tower, where she had a “frank and positive” discussion with Trump about Syria, the battle against terrorism and other policy issues.
Gabbard said in her statement that “serving the people of Hawaii and our nation is an honor and responsibility that I do not take lightly,” adding, “Representing the aloha spirit and diversity of the people of Hawaii, I will continue to seek common ground to deliver results that best serve all Americans, as I have tried to do during my time in Congress.”
Gabbard’s statement did not say whether there was any discussion of a possible administration position for her.
Prominent Hawaii Democrats were cautious in their reactions Monday, saying they want to see what Gabbard actually does before passing judgment.
Dante Carpenter, a former Hawaii Democratic Party chairman and member of the party’s State Central Committee, said Gabbard’s statement about her meeting with Trump was puzzling.
“You gotta like the lady; she’s a very headstrong, independent person. On the other hand, I’m not exactly sure what the real scoop is,” Carpenter said. “She can talk in cliches galore that all sound very nice, but I’m not sure what her real message is, frankly.”
If Gabbard sought the Monday meeting with Trump to try to get an administration job less than two weeks after she won a third term in the Congress, “she would have, how should we say, used her candidacy as a launching pad to further her own ambitions, versus committing to do the job she was running for and elected to,” Carpenter said.
And if Gabbard does take a position in the Trump administration, Carpenter said, he does not know whether she would ever be welcomed back by the Hawaii Democratic Party. “I hope not but you never know,” he said.
Gabbard said in her written statement Monday, “I felt it important to take the opportunity to meet with the President-elect now before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government — a war which has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions of refugees to flee their homes in search of safety for themselves and their families.”
“While the rules of political expediency would say I should have refused to meet with President-elect Trump, I never have and never will play politics with American and Syrian lives,” Gabbard said in her statement.
Tim Vandeveer, chairman of the Hawaii Democratic Party, said that it appears she “took the opportunity to go in and — not just as a congresswoman, but also as a member of our armed forces — talk about interventionist wars and her belief that we should stay out of them. I think it’s … wise to take advantage of an opportunity to do that.”
“The fact that we’ve got Tulsi in there fighting for our values, I think, is a good thing at the end of the day,” Vandeveer said. “I think a lot of folks have sort of jumped to this notion that she’s interviewing for a job, and it doesn’t sound like that, at least from what I’ve read.”
Others were more critical. State Rep. Angus McKelvey (D, Lahaina-Kaanapali-Honokohau) issued a news release Monday criticizing Gabbard for failing to add her signature to a letter signed by many other Democrats in Congress opposing Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist.
Bannon “is known as a racist xenophobe with support from white nationalist hate groups,” McKelvey said in a news release. “In light of recent national reports that the Congresswoman has met with Trump … Hawaii’s residents have a right to know if Gabbard stands in opposition” to Bannon.
A Washington, D.C., publication called the Hill reported Monday it was Bannon who arranged Gabbard’s meeting with Trump. The Hill said it obtained its information from unnamed sources who are “close to Bannon.”
Gabbard at times has been a critic of the Obama administration’s handling of issues related to Islamic extremism, and has won praise from Bannon for some of her public statements on that and other subjects.
At first glance Gabbard would seem to be a curious candidate for any job in the Trump administration. She was a strong supporter of Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries, and resigned from her position as a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee to back him. Gabbard finally shifted her support to Hillary Clinton after the primaries.
Todd Belt, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said Monday’s meeting may not have been a job interview. Presidents often signal their willingness to work with the Congress by inviting in high-profile leaders from various factions for discussions, he said.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean an appointment to an executive branch position,” Belt said of Monday’s meeting between Gabbard and Trump. “It may merely mean that Trump and his incoming administration are looking for areas of compromise and also sort of feeling out what resistance might exist in the Congress.”
Trump will also need help from at least some Democrats as he advances his agenda on issues such as trade and foreign military interventions, because he can expect resistance from mainstream Republicans in Congress on those issues, Belt said.
On the other hand, Belt said, there has been a growing trend in recent years of presidents who appoint members of the opposing party to their administrations “to indicate the bipartisanship of their policies and to ease their relationships with Congress.”
Control of the U.S. House seems unlikely to shift to the Democrats anytime soon, so Gabbard “might have more power and more ability to effect any sort of changes in an administration. … and that would also help to establish her on a national level as someone who can work with both parties,” Belt said.
Gabbard said in her public statement Monday that she and Trump had a “frank and positive conversation” about a variety of foreign policy issues.
“Where I disagree with President-elect Trump on issues, I will not hesitate to express that disagreement,” Gabbard said in the statement. “However, I believe we can disagree, even strongly, but still come together on issues that matter to the American people and affect their daily lives. We cannot allow continued divisiveness to destroy our country.
“I shared with him my grave concerns that escalating the war in Syria by implementing a so-called no fly/safe zone would be disastrous for the Syrian people, our country, and the world. It would lead to more death and suffering, exacerbate the refugee crisis, strengthen ISIS and al-Qaeda, and bring us into a direct conflict with Russia which could result in a nuclear war. We discussed my bill to end our country’s illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government, and the need to focus our precious resources on rebuilding our own country, and on defeating al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups who pose a threat to the American people.”