Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-Hawaii) presidential campaign has become a flashpoint in the Democratic primary after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alleged that Moscow is grooming her for a third party run with the aim of getting President Trump reelected in 2020.
Gabbard has said she will not launch an independent bid for president and is swinging back, calling Clinton the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party.”
Trump, along with many on the left and the right, have rallied to Gabbard’s defense, giving the low-polling candidate a wave of new publicity that could be valuable for her struggling campaign.
Some Democrats are irritated by Clinton’s remarks, noting that there is no evidence that Gabbard is a Russian asset and accusing the party’s 2016 presidential nominee of elevating a candidate they detest.
Gabbard, a 38-year-old military veteran, has run afoul of many mainstream Democrats for attacking party leadership and meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government has been propped up by Russian military forces.
But by spotlighting Gabbard, Clinton has reignited divisions between establishment Democrats and the party outsiders who propelled Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his improbable bid for the nomination against Clinton in the last cycle.
“Any time that Hillary Clinton dips her name into the 2020 election it is horrible for us,” said one Democratic fundraiser. “It helps Trump when Democrats are fighting with one another and this controversy just reopens those old wounds.”
The allegations have put the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in a tough spot as it seeks to balance concerns about foreign government interference while remaining neutral in the primary.
Gabbard has accused the DNC of “rigging” the primary with fundraising and polling requirements that have made it difficult for her and other candidates to qualify for the debates.
The Hawaii Democrat has not yet qualified for the November debate, although on Monday she hit the threshold in the first of four qualifying polls she would need to make the stage next month.
The DNC declined to comment for this story, but it has stood by the qualifying requirements, noting it has been transparent about the thresholds while managing a massive field of contenders.
An official also said that the DNC has invested heavily to secure its networks and monitor online disinformation about the Democratic presidential contenders.
However, Clinton’s insinuation that Gabbard may be an unwitting Russian asset voiced a concern that some party insiders have been whispering about in private for some time.
There are still bitter feelings over the perception that Green Party candidate Jill Stein may have drawn votes away from Clinton in key battleground states in 2016.
And there is genuine disgust among a subset of Democrats who view Gabbard as a fringe candidate with peculiar views running a quixotic campaign that has drawn supportive remarks from controversial figures on the right, such as pro-Trump commentator Mike Cernovich and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Gabbard has rejected the support of Duke, but she continues to annoy Democrats by sitting for interviews with Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson.
On Monday, Trump came to Gabbard’s defense.
“[Clinton is] accusing everyone of being a Russian agent,” the president said. “These people are sick. There’s something wrong with them.”
Gabbard’s allies insist she is not running a campaign meant to appeal to the right, but that her attacks on the establishment and dissent from Democratic orthodoxy resonate with outsiders everywhere, including some Trump supporters.
And they’re furious at what they view as a smear campaign orchestrated by Clinton and underscored by a recent New York Times story that quoted Clinton allies highlighting Gabbard’s support on the right and insinuating that the Russian government is tacitly aiding her campaign.
“People warned me in 2016 that my endorsement of Bernie Sanders would be the end of my political career,” Gabbard said in a video released over the weekend.
“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 you are destroyed. 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.”
Allies of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have joined the chorus of attacks against Gabbard, pointing to what they say is suspicious online activity that amplified Gabbard’s attacks on Harris’s record as a prosecutor.
There is no evidence that Gabbard’s campaign is working with Russia, and experts note that online Russian bot activity is often aimed at sowing broad divisions across many different groups in the U.S.
Gabbard’s defenders view the attacks from Harris as retribution from their debate clash, and they say the attacks from Clinton are retaliation against Gabbard for resigning as vice chairwoman of the DNC in 2016 to protest the national party’s treatment of Sanders.
“Even for a Clinton, this is the worst kind of McCarthyite slander, perhaps conjured up with no evidence over too many glasses of Chardonnay with her best friends and masters of deception at Goldman Sachs,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist who supports Sanders.
“The rich irony here is that if anyone is a paid asset of a foreign government, it’s Hillary Clinton, whose foundation has happily pocketed millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia whose dictators oppress women and are carrying out a genocidal war against civilians in Yemen, none of which seems to bother her.”
Several 2020 presidential candidates, including tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have defended Gabbard against what they described as baseless attacks.
And pundits and anchors at mainstream media outlets have so far treated Clinton’s allegations with hostility and deep skepticism.
But Clinton’s allies are doubling down, with some describing the effort as designed to head off a potential independent run by Gabbard or to destroy her chances at being in another candidate’s Cabinet.
“No matter what the DNC does or doesn’t do, Tulsi and her bots will scream rigged and conspiracy,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist. “It’s the same mindset that allows someone to defend Assad. My much bigger disappointment is with the candidates who were given an opportunity to start calling out Russian interference and failed miserably.”