“Hillary Clinton emerged recently to claim, with no basis in fact, that I am being ‘groomed’ by the Russian government to undermine America.”

— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal, Oct. 30, 2019

This is the first sentence in an opinion article by the 2020 presidential hopeful, titled “I Can Defeat Trump and the Clinton Doctrine.” In it, Gabbard says she is running “to undo Mrs. Clinton’s failed legacy” of “foreign-policy catastrophes.”

Gabbard has taken umbrage with some remarks Clinton made during a podcast interview on Oct. 17. But Gabbard accuses Clinton of something she did not say.

The Facts

Clinton was interviewed by David Plouffe, who had been Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008. At one point, Plouffe and Clinton discuss possible strategies that President Trump and Republicans would use in the 2020 election, and Plouffe notes that Trump did not win a majority of the vote in 2016. (The podcast can be found here, and the relevant discussion begins at the 35:00 mark.)

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In fact, Clinton earned nearly 3 million more popular votes than Trump but narrowly lost three key states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — so the electoral college tipped to Trump. In all three cases, the votes for third-party candidates, such as libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, exceeded the margin between Clinton and Trump.

Clinton told Plouffe that the GOP strategy will have “two parts.” First, she said, Republicans would demonize the Democratic candidate so that even if voters find Trump’s behavior distasteful, they might be reluctant to cast a ballot for a Democrat. “I think it’s going to be the same as 2016: ‘Don’t vote for the other guy. You don’t like me? Don’t vote for the other guy because the other guy is going to do X, Y and Z,’ ” Clinton said.

Second, she said, Republicans would encourage a third-party bid so that those voters disenchanted with Trump and the Democratic nominee would have another option.

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“They are also going to do third-party again, and 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.

Here’s where it starts to get confusing, especially because a lot of the early reporting on Clinton’s remarks did not provide the right context — that she was talking about what Republicans were planning.

Clinton then started to talk about Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential race.

“She is a favorite of the Russians,” Clinton added, still not saying who she was talking about. “They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. And, that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset. Totally. And so they know they can’t win without a third-party candidate. I don’t know who it’s going to be, but I will guarantee they’ll have a vigorous third-party challenge in the key states that they most need it.”

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(Numerous investigations have found that Russian Internet operatives tried to bolster Stein’s candidacy. Both Stein and Gabbard have advocated foreign policy positions that could be viewed as favorable to Russia, but they have strongly rejected the idea of being a Russian asset. Five days before Clinton’s interview, the New York Times published an article noting the unusual enthusiasm for Gabbard in the right-wing Internet world and in Russian state media.)

While Clinton did not mention Gabbard by name, her staff later said that she was referring to the combat veteran in her comments. Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told CNN: “If the nesting doll fits.”

He added: “This is not some outlandish claim. This is reality. If the Russian propaganda machine, both their state media and their bot and troll operations, is backing a candidate aligned with their interests, that is just a reality, it is not speculation.”

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Gabbard pushed back hard against Clinton’s statements. When she announced Oct. 25 that she would not run for another term in Congress so she could concentrate on winning the Democratic nomination for president, she added: “I’m not going to run as a third party candidate.”

Much of the early news reporting suggested that Clinton said the Russians were “grooming” Gabbard. Merrill tweeted a cautionary note on the evening of Oct. 18:

“I don’t think it’s up for debate, as Plouffe’s question is pretty clear, that Secretary Clinton was talking about the GOP, not the Russians, in her grooming comment,” Merrill told the Fact Checker. “What I don’t understand is how the Wall Street Journal can publish a piece that is factually incorrect, especially when this same thing happened with the New York Times last week and they addressed it immediately.”

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He added: “I spent the bulk of the day and ensuing days pushing back, but it was me versus Twitter with very few people listening to the primary source, which was of course the podcast itself. When something goes out into the world incorrectly, it’s hard to put that toothpaste back into the tube, as I’m sure you know.”

A Gabbard campaign aide responded: “If that wasn’t her intent, why didn’t her spokesman immediately correct it instead of confirming it with the ‘nesting doll’ comment?”

The Pinocchio Test

The initial news reports got it wrong, perhaps fueled by the “nesting doll” comment, with many saying Clinton said the Russians were grooming Gabbard for a third-party bid. Still, Clinton certainly said Gabbard was backed by Russian bots and even suggested she was a Russian asset.

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Within a 24-hour news cycle, Clinton’s staff made it clear she was talking about the GOP, not the Russians, eyeing Gabbard as a possible third-party candidate. A simple listen to the podcast confirmed that.

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In other words, this was all cleared up 12 days before Gabbard published her opinion article, making the inaccurate version of “grooming” statement the very first sentence. So there’s little excuse for getting this wrong.

Gabbard earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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