“I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said on a podcast with David Plouffe, who was an adviser to President Barack Obama. “She’s the favorite of the Russians.”
“They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far,” she added.
Pushback came quickly from Andrew Yang, a presidential candidate with support not much higher than Gabbard’s, and another candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The most recent defense of Gabbard came from Clinton’s 2016 rival — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Buttigieg told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that attacks such as Clinton’s require proof.
“Statements like that ought to be backed by evidence,” he said.
“I don’t know what the basis is for that. I consider [Gabbard] a competitor. I respect her service,” added Buttigieg, who was deployed to Afghanistan. “I would prefer we had arguments in terms of policy.”
All three candidates referenced Gabbard’s service in the military as one reason not to paint her as a tool of a foreign power, which is something Gabbard also referenced in her response to Clinton. The idea seems to be that no one who would put their lives on the line for the United States would betray this country to the point of working with a foreign government to harm the United States.
“This is a message to every veteran in this country who has put their life on the line to serve our country, to every single American who believes strongly that we must end this long-standing foreign policy of being the world’s police and ending these regime-change wars, which is really the legacy of Hillary Clinton, then we are traitors to the nation that we love,” Gabbard told CBS News.
But none of the candidates responded to the underlying claim, which so many others find troubling: the possibility of Gabbard launching a third-party candidacy that would get a boost from Russia, including via a disinformation campaign that would cause harm to Democrats’ chances in the 2020 presidential election. Gabbard denied to CBS that she was considering a third-party run.
Clinton was explicitly stating what some on the left, as well as in the foreign policy world, have been suggesting for quite some time — before going further than most. Some have argued that Gabbard doesn’t have to be proactively working with Russia for that government to be using her campaign to interfere in the 2020 election.
Last month, Naveed Jamali, a former secret double agent who worked for the FBI to spy on Russia, noted that Russia could attempt to amplify support for the lawmaker by using the troll factories that were so effective in 2016.
“Russia may choose to covertly amplify her message by building what may look like organic and grass-roots online support for her,” he wrote for Newsweek. “They may take some of her talking points — such as, Assad ‘is not the enemy of the U.S.’ or that the U.S. is in ‘a new nuclear arms race’ — and work to increase their reach across social media.”
But he said concerns that Gabbard could be aware of Russia’s preference for her are inflamed by the fact that she “has steadfastly refused to renounce any Russian support she may be receiving.”
“If borne out, Russian support of Gabbard does not mean that she is a Russian-directed operative, or that she has ties with or is in contact with Moscow,” Jamali added. “The same holds true if Russia seeks to independently aid the Gabbard campaign.”
Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, an international relations think tank, wrote in May that one of Russia’s main goals for 2020 will be to “divide the opposition,” and it appears that they have begun to do that with Gabbard, often using members of the right.
“Moving forward, the Kremlin’s strategy will be to identify, highlight and empower the unwitting and the like-minded on the political left,” he wrote for the Daily Beast, providing examples of how this would work.
Tulsi Gabbard fell into this crossfire with her meeting with and support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It situated her as a bridge between anti-Israel activists of the political left and white supremacists like former KKK leader and GOP Louisiana state representative David Duke, who tweeted, “Tulsi Gabbard is currently the only Presidential candidate who doesn’t want to send White children off to die for Israel.” Alt-right leader Richard Spencer and the nationalist Mike Cernovich also fanned support for Gabbard in January 2019. And we shouldn’t forget Steve Bannon sought Gabbard out for a meeting with President-elect Trump in November 2016. Online and on-the-ground convergence between the populist right and the populist left is happening in plain sight—all the Kremlin has to do is help it grow.
In February, NBC conducted an analysis of the main English-language news sites Russia employed while interfering in the 2016 election and discovered that Gabbard was the favorite candidate of those sites — even before Gabbard officially launched her campaign.
All three sites celebrated Gabbard’s announcement, defended her positions on Russia and her 2017 meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and attacked those who have suggested she is a pawn for Moscow. The coverage devoted to Gabbard, both in news and commentary, exceeds that afforded to any of the declared or rumored Democratic candidates despite Gabbard’s lack of voter recognition.
NBC News analyst Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook, said the lawmaker helps Russia with all their “lines of attack.”
“Her promulgation of positions compatible with Russian geostrategic interests can help them mainstream such discussion in the [Democratic] Party,” he said.
Concerns about Russian interference in the 2020 election remain significant for many Americans. Confidence in the integrity of the election process has been threatened since the 2016 election, particularly since President Trump has not aggressively confronted Russia for what American intelligence agencies say the country’s government did.
Defenders of Gabbard, including those on the right and the populist left who regularly oppose the Democratic establishment, may attempt to color Clinton’s critiques of the lawmaker as bitterness coupled with the former secretary of state’s desire to bolster a more centrist candidate’s campaign. But experts in the field of Russian interference view manipulations of Gabbard’s campaign as potentially harmful to the 2020 election in ways that are similar to the previous election. And for those who are concerned about the integrity of the U.S. election process, that is a much bigger issue than Gabbard’s personal feelings.