The ‘Russian asset’ and the ‘warmonger’: The roots of the Clinton-Gabbard dispute

The ‘Russian asset’ and the ‘warmonger’: The roots of the Clinton-Gabbard dispute

Kives, a Hollywood agent, forwarded the email chain to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, and Huma Abedin, Clinton’s closest aide, to gloat about the verbal beatdown.

“Hammer dropped!” he wrote.

The Hawaii congresswoman’s rough experience in the 2016 primary offers a window into her relationship with the Clinton team, providing additional context for the acrimonious, headline-making exchange between the two Democrats.

This time, Clinton struck Gabbard first, lacerating the Hawaii congresswoman as a “favorite of Russians” and suggesting that Republicans “are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.” Though Clinton didn’t expressly name Gabbard, it was obvious of whom she spoke.

Gabbard responded by trashing Clinton as the “queen of warmongers” and the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party,” before going on to say the former Democratic presidential nominee was behind an effort to destroy her reputation.

“I was told she will never forget,” Gabbard said Monday in an email fundraising pitch, referring to her endorsement of Sanders. “Her rich and powerful friends in the media and Democratic Party would try to destroy me.”

The feud illuminates two of the most emotional issues tugging at Democrats heading into the 2016 election: worries about Russian interference and the prospect of a third-party candidate who could sap away just enough voters to allow an unpopular Donald Trump to win a second term.

Considering her experience in 2016, Clinton is engaged in truth-telling, not payback, her supporters say.

“I think that Gabbard supporters citing these concocted spilled-milk motivations is nonsense,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill. “This is about a former secretary of state having grave concerns about the policy positions and the dangerous rhetoric (or at times, silence) that indicates a world view voters should take time to understand and be concerned by.”

Since Trump’s election, Gabbard has grown increasingly estranged from her party, a process that began while serving as DNC vice chair in 2016, when she added her voice to the growing chorus of critics concerned that the DNC was holding too few debates — a policy which worked to Clinton’s advantage.

Then-DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz — who quietly favored Clinton along with other top party staffers — responded to the public criticism by disinviting Gabbard from one of the debates she planned to attend.

Gabbard, who declined to comment for this story, later resigned her party post and endorsed Sanders in dramatic fashion, announcing her decision on “Meet the Press.”

Several months later, Gabbard struck again. Just before Clinton was officially nominated to be the party’s standard-bearer, Gabbard went out of her way to play up internal divisions by tweeting a New York Daily News story that highlighted how some of Wasserman Schultz’s DNC staffers privately speculated about attacking Sanders’ lack of devotion to his Jewish faith.

But the Clinton campaign’s hard feelings toward Gabbard haven’t affected the congresswoman’s trajectory nearly as much as Gabbard’s own unusual path. After the 2016 election, the former Iraq War combat veteran became a political oddity in the party — she emerged as a darling of conservative commentators on FOX News. In the aftermath of this new conflict, Gabbard appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show and tweeted a link to her interview, accusing Clinton of “the new McCarthyism.”

After Trump’s election, Gabbard met with Trump and his transition team in Trump Tower amid talk of a possible administration job as part of a visit arranged by Trump’s former adviser, Steve Bannon. Gabbard described the conversation as “frank and positive.”

But it was Gabbard’s decision to visit Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2017 and her reticence in condemning him — after criticizing U.S. policy and occasionally seeming to favor Putin’s involvement there — became a final breaking point for many Democrats, including Clinton.

Gabbard has since been favorably covered by Russian propaganda outlets, is widely seen as the right’s favorite Democratic candidate and hired an adviser with Kremlin links.

Even so, Sanders bristled at Clinton’s characterization.

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

A top Clinton adviser, Phillippe Reines, said Gabbard’s fall from grace among Democrats is a matter of both party politics and policy.

“Politically, in 2015 she was the first woman in Congress to endorse Sanders. So she didn’t make many friends there. I’d say that’s 25% of the answer,” Reines said via email.

“Substantively, the red line she crossed was visiting Syria. It was against [U.S. government] policy,” Reines said. “Worse, she coddled Assad. The criticisms levied at her about Assad are 1000% valid. I mean, who the hell holds back on Assad? And the obstinacy since then is Trump-like. That’s 75%.”

Jennifer Holdsworth, who served as New Jersey state director for Hillary for America, said Gabbard made the dispute personal because she is self-serving.

“Tulsi Gabbard has always been about whatever brings the most press to Tulsi Gabbard,” Holdsworth said.

Supporters of Gabbard and Sanders — as well as Trump, who defended the congresswoman Monday — say Clinton is trying to deflect blame for running a bad campaign in 2016 and losing to Trump. Clinton backers and mainstream Democrats hailed Clinton for giving voice to their suspicions and drawing attention to ongoing Russian interference that played a major role in the 2016 campaign.

Both emails cited in this story, for example, were released by the group WikiLeaks after they were hacked by Russian agents, according to U.S. intelligence officials and bipartisan congressional investigations.

The interference by Russia’s Internet Research Agency and other actors was chronicled in both an indictment of Russian operatives and Senate Intelligence Committee reports that showed how the foreign government used social media platforms to spread disinformation and negative information about Clinton, sometimes by boosting Trump or her other opponents.

Bill Browder, a financier and activist who has run afoul of Putin, said he thought it was no coincidence that Gabbard recently hired an operative who had worked with a Kremlin-backed lawyer who smeared him because he helped secure the passage of the Magnitsky Act. That law sanctioned Russia in reaction to the death of a friend of Browder — after whom the law is named.

“Out of all the thousands of people she could have chosen, she happened to choose the one who had first-hand experience working with a Russian agent of Vladimir Putin’s,” Browder said of Gabbard. “I don’t believe in coincidences. It’s less likely to be a coincidence when you look at her policies, which are the same policy as Putin’s: pro-Assad, anti-gay and pro-Trump.”

Gabbard has renounced her past homophobic views and has criticized Trump at the Democratic debates.

Clinton, however, has stopped short of directly calling Gabbard a Russian asset in her comments. On the Campaign HQ with David Plouffe podcast, Clinton just said Gabbard was the preferred candidate of Russian agents who “have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.”

Clinton did say she suspected Gabbard would run as a third-party candidate — a claim Gabbard has denied — and did call 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein “a Russian asset.”

“They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate,” Clinton said. “So I don’t know who it’s going to be, but I will guarantee you they will have a vigorous third-party challenge in the key states that they most needed.”

When asked if Clinton were singling out Gabbard, whom she didn’t mention by name, her spokesman, Merrill, referenced Russian Matryoshka dolls and said, “If the nesting doll fits.”

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