Hillary Clinton And The Democrats’ Disinformation Campaign Against Tulsi Gabbard

Kevin Gosztola
Oct 22 · 15 min read
Hillary Clinton (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The baseless suggestion from Hillary Clinton that Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard is a Russian asset is the predictable response of a faction of party elites, which remain desperately invested in the unfounded Russiagate narrative that President Donald Trump was an agent of Moscow.

Opposition to wars and support for socially democratic policies has surged within the Democratic Party. Leading presidential candidates include Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Former Vice President Joe Biden is treading water, few centrist liberals have polled higher than single digits in the primary, and they are unsure of which candidate to align behind.

So Clinton and other Democrats fell back on a strategy they have used since the 2016 election to avoid reflecting on their dwindling support: spread fear that Russia will “invade” the 2020 election.

A feature of this strategy is the McCarthyism that it naturally fuels. It helps Democratic elites maintain the confines for how far they are willing to be pushed by the grassroots insurgency at the base of the Democratic Party. Any prominent figure who engages in a debate or pushes an agenda that goes beyond what they will allow is conveniently a favorite of Russian bots or trolls, or worse, a witting or unwitting asset of the Russian government.

Their strategy has poisoned U.S. press coverage of Gabbard’s presidential campaign since the day she announced her candidacy, and it has helped Democrats single out Gabbard as the primary candidate who the Russian government is most likely to back to undermine the party’s potential to defeat Trump.

‘They’re Grooming Her’

David Plouffe was the campaign manager for President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He hosts the podcast, “Campaign HQ,” and released an episode featuring Clinton on October 17.

“I’m not making any predictions, but I think [the GOP’s] 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. And that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, and she might not because she’s also a Russian asset.”

Plouffe agreed with Clinton’s assessment of Stein and did nothing to pushback on the baseless assertion that Gabbard is a Russian asset. In fact, after Clinton completed her specific remark, he cut to a commercial, which gave listeners a break to stew on her astonishing allegation.

Throughout the 2020 primary, Gabbard has struggled to poll high enough to qualify for the debates. She did not qualify for the debate in September but managed to reclaim her spot on the stage for the October 15 debate.

The day of the debate Bakari Sellers, a former surrogate for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, appeared on CNN. He shocked CNN political analyst April Ryan, as well as CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota, by previewing the attack Clinton deployed on Plouffe’s podcast.

“There is a chance that Tulsi is not just working for the United States of America, but I digress,” Sellers hinted.

Ryan reacted, “Wait a minute, what?” Everyone appearing in the segment recognized this was a damning allegation that required proof or else it would effectively be slanderous.

Sellers continued, “I firmly believe that Tulsi Gabbard stands on that stage as the antithesis to what the other 11 individuals stand for, especially when it comes to issues such as foreign policy. There’s no question, there is no question that Tulsi Gabbard, of all the 12, is a puppet for the Russian government.”

Except, when Camerota requested Sellers provide evidence, he did not have any specific evidence to connect her to the Russian government.

What Sellers did was successful in that it put Gabbard in a position, where she could ignore the smear and let it cloud her appearance or she could call out the debate’s host. She opted to defend herself.

“This morning, a CNN commentator said on national television that I’m an asset of Russia. Completely despicable,” Gabbard said.

Tulsi Gabbard (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Challenging A Leading Voice For War

In 2004, Gabbard, who is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, resigned from her seat in the Hawaii state legislature and deployed to Iraq for a 12-month tour as a specialist in the 29th Support Battalion’s field medical unit.

Gabbard also deployed to the Middle East in 2007 and helped train members of the Kuwait National Guard. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012.

As a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Gabbard criticized the DNC for limiting the schedule during the 2016 primary to six debates. She claimed weeks later that she was “disinvited” from attending a Democratic presidential debate because she appeared on MSNBC and called for more debates.

In February, during the heat of the primary, Gabbard resigned from her position as DNC vice chair and endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders. She declared, “We can elect a president who will lead us into more interventionist wars of regime change. Or we can elect a president who will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.”

She elaborated in an email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Hillary Clinton was not only the leading Democratic voice for the war in Iraq. She was the head cheerleader and architect of the war to overthrow the Libyan government of Gaddafi which has resulted in chaos, a failed state, and a stronghold for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Hillary was and continues to be the loudest voice for the disastrous war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad.”

“These wars of regime change have cost trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men in the Middle East,” Gabbard contended. “And al Qaida and ISIS are stronger than ever.”

The endorsement was one of the Sanders campaign’s most high-profile endorsements of the election.

Following Trump’s victory, he invited Gabbard to meet with him at Trump Tower in November. Gabbard defended her decision to accept the invitation as a backlash among Democrats ensued.

“President-elect Trump and I had a frank and positive conversation in which we discussed a variety of foreign policy issues in depth,” Gabbard stated. “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.”

She continued, “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.”

Yet, the greatest focus of the Democratic Party’s anger by far has been directed at Gabbard for meeting with Syrian Bashar al-Assad in January 2017 while she was in Syria to see the devastation caused by the conflict. This meeting has become an endless source for innuendo and lies about her lack of allegiance to the United States.

She defended the meeting. “Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it. I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering.”

Hillary Clinton (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

“Russia’s 2016 Do-Over”

Debate ensued after Hillary Clinton attacked Tulsi Gabbard. Like the most pernicious rumors of disloyalty leveled against politicians in American history, she made the question of whether Gabbard was really a Russian asset a part of widespread conversation.

She forced Gabbard to respond by going on one of the few television shows with millions of nightly viewers that would grant her a platform to speak without bullying her into toeing a party line: ”The Tucker Carlson Show.”

Gabbard’s appearance was treated as further proof she was likely an asset because Carlson has used his show to promote white supremacist views before and so, to Democrats, here was the red-brown alliance in action.

But Gabbard also responded directly to Clinton on Twitter and put the focus on her support for war.

That led Zac Petkanas, who was the rapid response director for the Clinton campaign, to quip, “The reason it took Tulsi Gabbard so long to respond is that she had to run it by Putin first. Honestly, it probably sounded better in the original Russian.”

Phillippe Reines, a former Clinton spokesperson, could not pass up an opportunity to give his two cents. “The Tulsi kerfuffle will be short-lived. Which means I need to hurry before it ends! In three tweets, she called Hillary worse than she has ever called Assad or Putin. If Russian-compromised Trump and third-party menace Jill Stein had a child, it would be Tulsi Gabbard.”

Adam Parkhomenko, founder of the Ready For Hillary super PAC, reacted, “Tulsi Gabbard (R-Moscow) is back on the clock,” and, “Tulski Gabbard is wide awake at almost midnight local time in Moscow. For those that want to support the American running against her and lift up our efforts to elect him, let’s add another 250 contributions to his campaign now.”

Zerlina Maxwell, a former Clinton campaign official and director of SiriusXM’s progressive programming, said she“didn’t go far enough, and we have to decide whether or not we’ll listen to Hillary Clinton.” She added, “In 2016, anchors literally laughed at Hillary Clinton when she said it was Russia” targeting her campaign.

On CNN, former Virginia Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe expressed the view that, perhaps, Clinton is not sharing all she knows. “This is something that she’s been reading a lot about. I don’t know whether Tulsi Gabbard is connected with the Russians. But the Russian state media has been very favorable toward her. She won’t come out and really go after Assad, who is a genocidal dictator.”

Naveed Jamali, an MSNBC contributor and asset who helped the FBI arrest a member of Russian intelligence, declared, “Tulsi Gabbard may not be breaking the law, but as somebody who knows Russia recruitment and targeting tactics cold, she is absolutely being used as a Russian unwitting asset. She’s Russia’s 2016 do-over.” Former Clinton aide Neera Tanden agreed with Jamali and indicated she shared “Hillary’s concerns.”

Soon, not denying the allegation became evidence against Gabbard. Kimberly Atkins, a senior news correspondent for WBUR, appeared on MSNBC on October 19 and said Gabbard “never denied being a Russian asset.” She could barely complete her point without laughing and soon media colleagues on “Up with David Gura” were crowing along with her.

“Why does Tulsi Gabbard refuse to disavow help from Putin’s government?” tweeted Renato Mariotti, a legal correspondent for POLITICO who has made regular appearances on MSNBC.

Former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, another CNN analyst, insisted it did not matter whether Gabbard has a formal relationship with the Russian government or not. “If you are parroting Russian talking points and furthering their interests, you’re a source who is too dumb to know you’re being played to ask for money.”

Commentators on the left are quick to dredge up past comments that were anti-gay or anti-Muslim in order to marginalize her as some kind of progressive champion. They also frequently doubt whether she is truly anti-war, despite her consistency on “regime change” wars. There was little incentive for progressives to come to Gabbard’s defense.

Tulsi Gabbard (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

‘If They Can Falsely Portray Me As A Traitor, Then They Can Do It To Anyone’

“People warned me in 2016 that my endorsement of Bernie Sanders would be the end of my ‘political career.’ They said, ‘Clinton will never forget, that she and her rich and powerful friends, her allies in politics and in the media, will make sure that you are destroyed,’” Gabbard stated in a campaign advertisement.

“Well, there have been countless hit pieces full of smears against me from day one of this campaign. They’ve tried to destroy my reputation, and my lifetime of service because I stood up to them.”

“If they can falsely portray me as a traitor, then they can do it to anyone,” Gabbard proclaimed. “And, in fact, that’s exactly the message that they want to get across to you, that if you stand up against Hillary and party power brokers, if you stand up to the rich and powerful elite and war machine, they will destroy you and discredit your message.”

Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair wrote an article that was headlined, “Is Tulsi Gabbard the Jill Stein of 2020?”

On February 2, NBC News ran a dubious analysis that asserted “Russia’s propaganda machine” discovered Gabbard. She was confronted over this during her appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” days later.

Questions from the panel included:

“Vladimir Putin, is he an adversary of the United States of America?”

“Do you agree with the intel chiefs’ assessment that Vladimir Putin and Russia interfered with democracy in 2016 and are going to try to do it again in 2020?”

“Just to confirm, you agree with the intel chiefs that Russia is trying to actively interfere in American democracy?”

“There have been reports that Russian apparatus that interfered in 2016 is potentially trying to help your campaign. Why do you think that is?”

Glenn Greenwald pointed out the named sources in the NBC News report were Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge, and Josh Russell, a researcher and “troll hunter.” New Knowledge was caught by the New York Times fabricating Russian troll accounts on behalf of the Democratic Party in an Alabama Senate race. They manufactured “false accusations that the Kremlin was interfering in that election.” This resulted in Facebook shutting down the CEO of New Knowledge’s account.

Russell is “someone CNN last year touted as an ‘Indiana dad’ and ‘amateur troll hunter’ with a full-time job unrelated to Russia (he works as a programmer at a college) and whose ‘hobby’ is tracing online Russian accounts.”

On “Morning Joe,” Gabbard reacted, “It’s actually very dangerous for articles like that and outlets like NBC to put out this information that seeks to bully people into saying you can’t come out and take the positions that I’ve taken, of calling for an end to the [new] cold war, calling for an end to the nuclear crisis that we’re facing. Otherwise, you’re going to be smeared as someone who is a subject of Russian propaganda.”

Buzzfeed ran an article on February 12, “Who Is Tulsi Gabbard? She Doesn’t Like What You’ve Probably Heard.”

Host Meghan McCain, the daughter of the late Senator John McCain, grilled Gabbard during her appearance on ABC’s “The View” and demanded she “clarify” that Assad is an “enemy of the United States.” She was only badgered with this question because of the rumors out there that she somehow is serving the agenda of a foreign power.

In May, as part of The Daily Beast’s “СОБАКА BITES ЧЕЛОВЕК” column, Lachlan Markay and Sam Stein wrote an article headlined, “Tulsi Gabbard’s Campaign Is Being Boosted By Putin Apologists.” It wildly singled out three individual donors as evidence that her campaign is “underwritten by some of the nation’s leading Russophiles.”

Gabbard raised nearly $5 million in the first quarter. These donations made up 0.86 percent of the donations she received.

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi called the piece a “new low” for “campaign hit pieces,” and he noted that George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s “This Week,” asked Gabbard about the article, which she called “fake news.” As Taibbi noted, that set off a round of stories denouncing her for using a phrase Trump popularized.

During a CNN debate in July, Gabbard challenged Senator Kamala Harris over her record on criminal justice issues when she was a prosecutor in California. Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the Harris campaign, sought to discredit her criticism. “Reporters writing their stories with eyes on the modern-day assignment desk of Twitter, read this,” he wrote, sharing a link to the NBC News story from February.

MSNBC host Joy Reid and New York Times writer Wajahat Ali agreed. “Beware the Russian bots and their promotion of Tulsi Gabbard and sowing racial discord, especially around Kamala Harris,” Ali tweeted. Reid replied, “It is notable that her purpose in these debates has been specifically to take Harris down.”

A profile by Edward-Isaac Dovere that The Atlantic published in September added to the gossip journalism around Gabbard’s campaign. The publication granted anonymity to “high-level Democrats” to trash her campaign and her supporters. Dovere pointed to Russia Today coverage and a Russian embassy that tweeted favorably about Gabbard as proof that she is likely an agent. And he dismissed her comments about keeping the United States from the brink of nuclear war with Russia because they did not mesh well with the article.

New York Times reporter Lisa Lerer essentially followed the same template that Dovere followed in an October article headlined, “What, Exactly, Is Tulsi Gabbard Up To?” It broke no new ground. However, Gabbard remembered the article while she was on the debate stage on October 15.

She accused the Times and CNN, hosts of the debate, of smearing veterans like herself for “calling for an end” to the “regime change war” in Syria. “Just two days ago, the New York Times put out an article saying that I’m a Russian asset and an Assad apologist and all these different smears.”

No other candidate was in a position where they had to worry about whether condemning attacks from the hosts of the debate would result in less speaking time, something crucial to a campaign barely able to maintain two-to-three percent in polls.

For what it is worth, Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders each spoke out.

“Tulsi Gabbard has put her life on the line to defend this country,” Sanders stated. “People can disagree on issues, but it is outrageous for anyone to suggest that Tulsi is a foreign asset.”

Given how prominent CNN contributors fueled this attack on Gabbard, the exchange that took place between “State of the Union” host Jake Tapper and Buttigieg on October 20 was remarkable. Tapper asked Buttigieg if he thought Gabbard was a Russian asset.

BUTTIGIEG: I don’t know what the basis is for that.

TAPPER: Well, I don’t either.

BUTTIGIEG: I consider her to be a competitor, somebody who I respect her service.

I also have very different views than she does, especially on foreign policy. And I would prefer to have that argument in terms of policy, which is what we do with debates and what we’re doing as we go forward.

TAPPER: So when Donald Trump smears people, Democrats all stand up and say, you’re smearing someone. Stop it.

Why don’t Democrats do that to say that about Tulsi Gabbard? It seems like an obvious smear. I don’t see any evidence she’s a Russian asset. It seems like a wild accusation.

BUTTIGIEG: Yes, I think statements like that ought to be backed by evidence.

“We went through a Red Scare in the 1950s under McCarthyism, and I just think that it is wrong for people to level that kind of stuff at the congresswoman with no proof,” said Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner on MSNBC. “We know what people can do to malign and mess up somebody’s reputation.”

Turner insisted she deserves respect because she is still a member of the military, and she is running for president. And she agreed with CNN news commentator Van Jones, who stood up for Gabbard almost immediately after the allegation spread, and argued Clinton targeted Gabbard as revenge for endorsing Sanders in the 2016 primary.

“Tulsi Gabbard was picked out by the Democratic Party and put at the top of the DNC. They thought she was going to be their golden girl,” Jones recalled during CNN’s “OutFront.”

He added, “And she got that position and she looked around and saw Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other people, Clinton allies, doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing in the primary and Tulsi publicly quit and endorsed Bernie Sanders, and it’s been payback hell ever since.”

***

Nothing has changed since the 2016 election. As Glenn Greenwald previously highlighted, the tactic of maligning critics as Russia sympathizers, Putin stooges, or outright agents of the Kremlin is alive and well.

When Sanders appeared to stand in Clinton’s way, “slimy suggestions” emerged of his “dark connections to Russia.” In January 2016, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Clinton supporter, warned that Republicans would spread ads “with a hammer and sickle” if Democrats nominated Sanders. “Pro-Clinton pundits linked Sanders to Communists through his 1980s praise of [Fidel] Castro and the Sandinistas. All of that culminated in Republicans like Lindsey Graham and [the] National Review citing Sanders’ honeymoon in the Soviet Union as proof of his suspicious loyalties,” Greenwald added.

Bloomberg‘s Leonid Bershidsky wrote, “Sanders’s long-ago ‘honeymoon’ in the Soviet Union is held up by his opponents as evidence of dubious judgment, and even communist sympathies or anti-American tendencies.”

Gabbard is not likely to be the Democratic Party’s nominee, but it is possible Sanders will do as well if not better than he did in 2016. That virtually guarantees Clinton, her proxies, and liberals will poison discussions about the election with this kind of malicious disinformation.

If Tulsi Gabbard is a Russian asset for having foreign policy views that diverge from the political establishment, then the same faction may contend Sanders is an asset because he regularly attacks the capitalist economy and backs radical reforms. They may construe any of Elizabeth Warren’s plans that challenge corporate power in this same manner.

The media echo chamber aids and abets this smoke screen tactic, which makes it possible for elites like Clinton to avoid taking any responsibility for actions that have fueled the current political climate. That includes Trump’s election and a Russiagate investigation, which can largely be traced to claims generated by Democrats that fueled a conspiracy theory that Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not substantiate.

Kevin Gosztola

Written by

Journalist. Writes about politics & film. Managing editor of Shadowproof.com. Twitter: @kgosztola

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