By midmorning Friday, national news outlets were reporting that Hillary Clinton had suggested Russia was grooming Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard to run as a third-party candidate in the presidential race. Twitter erupted.
Glenn Greenwald called it a “reckless smear” and an “evidence-free, deranged attack on Tulsi” that fit a long tradition of women of color being accused of being un-American.
Numerous Twitter users accused Clinton of perpetuating a new McCarthyism.
Snickering memes about Gabbard and Russia made the rounds.
Gabbard hit back against Clinton on social media, calling her “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party.”
She went on to suggest that Clinton was behind a concerted attack to ruin her reputation.
“We wondered who was behind it and why,” wrote Gabbard on her Facebook page. “Now we know – it was always you, through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose.
“It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”
In the bizarre firestorm of swirling accusations, one critical detail was largely obscured. Clinton did not say the Russians were grooming Gabbard to run as a third-party candidate, as national headlines proclaimed — she said the Republican Party was. Clinton did seem to suggest, however, that Gabbard, like Jill Stein, was a Russian asset — wittingly or not. The remark spurred the viral hashtag #TulsIsaRussianAsset.
It’s not clear whether Clinton has any evidence that Republicans are pushing Gabbard to break with the Democratic Party. Nick
Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, did not respond to questions about the basis of Clinton’s assertions other than to point out that Clinton was referring to the GOP in reference to the “grooming” comment.
But the exchange
underscores the challenges of talking about possible Russian attempts to interfere in U.S. elections, without inferring that the candidates themselves are Russian stooges — and ironically, playing into the hands of Russian propaganda efforts.
Clinton’s comments also reflect the nervousness within the Democratic Party that Gabbard might try to run as a third-party candidate, hurting Democrats’ chances of ousting Trump from office next year. Gabbard has ramped up her criticism of the Democratic National Committee recently. Last week she accused the DNC, along with the media, of rigging the presidential election against the American people.
In August, Gabbard shot down rumors that she would run as an independent, telling CNN that she’d ruled it out. A spokesman for Gabbard didn’t respond Friday to a question about whether Gabbard had changed her stance.
Clinton’s comments about Gabbard came during an interview with David Plouffe, a former aide to President Barack Obama. Clinton was asked about what she thought the Republican strategy would be for getting Trump reelected.
Clinton said she expected Republicans to try to divert votes away from the Democratic nominee, in part by supporting a third-party candidate. In 2016 some Democrats felt that Green Party candidate Jill Stein helped Trump win the presidency.
“They are also going to do third party again, and I’m not making any predictions, but I think they have their eye on someone who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said, a reference to Gabbard.
Clinton went on to say that Gabbard is a “favorite of the Russians.”
“They’ve got a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of
supporting her so far, and that
is assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she is also a Russian asset,” said Clinton.
Gabbard has received coverage in RT, a news agency backed by the Kremlin, and there have been signs that botlike activity has amplified support for Gabbard. But there’s been no reported evidence that Gabbard has any connections to those networks. During Tuesday’s presidential debate, Gabbard, an officer in the National Guard, called insinuations that she was a Russian asset “completely despicable.”
Clinton’s concerns about Russian interference trace back to her 2016 campaign against Trump. Reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russia had not only tried to boost support for Trump, but had tried to divert votes away from Clinton by encouraging votes for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.
Bart Dame, a longtime political observer who is active in local Democratic Party politics, said Clinton and other members of the party need to stop relying so much on “this whole Russia gate narrative” in regard to why Clinton lost the presidential race.
“It’s not just her, but it’s a whole wing of the party that has an investment to think that Trump won with Russian support rather than the weakness of the Democratic message and the Democratic candidate,” he said.
Dame called the notion that Gabbard is a Russian asset or “Putin puppet” a “cheap and stupid slander.” He also said Gabbard, as evidenced by her response to Clinton, seems to have become more erratic and panicky as it appears time for her to exit the presidential race.
Gabbard’s polling numbers have remained low, and her performance in the last debate was met with poor reviews. She’s not expected to make next month’s DNC sanctioned debate.
But for now the feud with Clinton appears to have breathed some new life into her campaign.
By Friday afternoon her campaign was fundraising off of Clinton’s comments.
“Hillary Clinton and her establishment cronies have their knives out for Tulsi, using her as an example in their campaign to intimidate and silence those who dare to stand up for peace,” her campaign wrote in an email.
The email requested a $25 contribution to help get Gabbard’s “message against the divisive smear merchants in front of as many Americans as possible before the end of the weekend.”
Later in the evening, Gabbard appeared on Fox News with Tucker Carlson where she reached out to potential supporters: “I want to send a message, Tucker, to your viewers here tonight: Whether you are a Democratic, Republican, Independent, Libertarian — whoever you are — if you are sick and tired of Hillary Clinton’s warmongering policies and corruption, come and join our campaign. We need your support.”