The specter of a repeat of the 2016 presidential race, in which Russia “interfered” in the election to help then candidate Donald Trump win, seemed to trouble the Democrats last week after former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggested Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard is a “favorite of the Russians” and that they are “grooming” her for the presidency.
Clinton accused Gabbard, the Hawaii Democrat, without naming her during a podcast with former Obama adviser David Plouffe Oct.17 saying , “They’re also going to do third-party again.
“I’m not making any predictions, but I think (the Russians) have got their eye on someone who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians,” Clinton said.
Although Clinton did not identify the candidate in the primary by name, her spokesperson Nick Merrill, when asked by CNN if Clinton was referencing Gabbard, clarified “If the nesting doll fits.”
Plouffe ended the podcast by noting Clinton’s “belief that Tulsi Gabbard is going to be a third-party candidate propped up by Trump and the Russians.”
Gabbard, the first Hindu American elected to the Congress, shot back on Twitter, “Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain.”
She said, “It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me,” Gabbard tweeted about Clinton. “Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”
While commentators wondered why Clinton felt the need to insert herself into the Democratic primary debate on the sidelines, the Clinton accusation brought under renewed media focus how Gabbard became a Fox News favorite for criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and for defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for apparent war crimes.
The Atlantic in a September 5, 2019 article noted that RT, the Kremlin-backed news agency, often highlights Gabbard’s campaign and the Russian embassy in South Africa has tweeted defensively about her. It added that “Russian bots have boosted her, and neo-Nazis bragged about helping her small-donor count so she could qualify for the first two debates.”
All these, according to news reports, for long have caused dismay among establishment Democrats. According to the reports, alt-right internet stars, white nationalists and Russians have praised Gabbard many times in the past. In response to a question by The Atlantic if she sees what happened in 2016 election as an attack by Russia, Gabbard told the magazine that the word attack, as a soldier, means certain things to her. “They’re very real issues that we need to address with Russia. I believe that we need to address them in a diplomatic fashion, and not carelessly escalate tensions with the country where we and they still have thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other.”
Although some experts believe, according to news reports, that Gabbard is really running on an antiwar message that’s consistent with where a lot of veterans are, "Democrats are on high alert about foreign interference in the next election and the D.N.C. is well aware of the frequent mentions of Ms. Gabbard in the Russian state news media," The New York Times noted last week.
Neera Tanden, a former Clinton adviser, who heads the Center for American Progress, predicted in July that Gabbard would run as a “third-party Green candidate to help Trump win,” after Gabbard attacked Sen. Kamala Devi Harris during a Democratic presidential debate, according to an Oct. 18 report in Salon.
CNN commentator Bakari Sellers declared that Gabbard is the “antithesis” of what the Democratic field stands for and claimed, “there is no question that Tulsi Gabbard … is a puppet for the Russian government.”
Gabbard, who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 race, hit back at her critics during the Oct. 15 Democratic debate. “The New York Times and CNN have also smeared veterans like myself for calling to an end to this regime-change war,” she said, referring to Syria. “Just two days ago, the New York Times put out an article saying I am a Russian asset and an Assad apologist and all these different smears. This morning a CNN commentator said on national television that I’m an asset of Russia. Completely despicable.”
Despite Hillary Clinton’s accusations and media reports criticizing her, Gabbard’s campaign may have benefited from the Clinton allegations about her being a Russian-propped candidate.
An Atlantic.com report said Clinton’s accusation that Gabbard is a tool of the Russians was “so blunt and clumsy” that it has added new life to a primary bid that should never have existed in the first place. “Within a day, Gabbard was already fundraising off of it, a development as predictable as a sunrise,” it said.
Her campaign urged friends and donors seeking help in fighting back against a “smear campaign by Hillary Clinton, the American war machine and its powerful allies in the corporate media.”
Her website Tulsi Gabbard President appealed, “We must not let Hillary Clinton and her establishment allies silence the voice of the American people and quash all those who dare to offer a dissenting voice in response to our corrupt status quo. Will you help me fight back? according to her email message circulated randomly.
The Indian-American community, among which Gabbard is believed to enjoy considerable support --- she has raised three times more from the Indian-American community in the U.S. than U.S. Senator Kamala Devi Harris of California, also in the Democratic primary – seemed unfazed by the Hillary accusation, although it is not clear if that is due to Gabbard’s perceived closeness to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who she called on as recently as last month during Modi’s visit to New York in connection with the UNGA plenary, or for purely altruistic motives.
Observed Vijay Pallod, a Houston-based Indian-American: It is just a smear campaign against Gabbard, but this is going to help Tulsi campaign rather than hurting her.
“If I have choice to trust between Hillary Clinton or Tulsi Gabbard, I will trust Tulsi without having a second thought. Hillary Clinton’s accusation that Tulsi is Russian agent is very disappointing. It is definitely surprising for me,” Pallod told India Abroad.
Others like Anil Maheshwari, a professor at Maharishi University of Management Vedic City, Iowa , who is an accomplished author of books on Data Analytics and Big Data, felt it is unfortunate that Hillary Clinton made the allegations against her.
“I think she (Gabbard) rattled the DNC right there with the boycott idea. Then at the debate Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg give a deer-in-the-headlight looks when Tulsi questioned or debated them. There was widespread criticism that CNN cutting off Tulsi’s questioning to protect Warren, who is the current favorite. Warren is zero in terms of foreign policy experience. I feel that Hillary had to come out and provide air cover to both Warren and Pete,” Maheshwari told this correspondent.
“Calling a decorated veteran with two tours of duty, and who is just returning from active duty an agent of Russia is incredibly irresponsible for a legend like Hillary Clinton.”