Should We Be Worried About Candidates Accepting Donations from ‘Russophiles’?

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard at the She the People forum in Houston, Texas, April 24, 2019. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

An odd turn of affairs: The RNC touted a Daily Beast story that reported “Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is being underwritten by some of the nation’s leading Russophiles.” Not donations from Russians, mind you, but a couple thousand dollars in donations from Americans with publicly stated views that are more or less in line with those of Vladmir Putin’s regime.

Whether or not Gabbard considers herself a friend to Russia, Russian-backed media sees a potential friend in her. Earlier this year, NBC News found “at least 20 Gabbard stories on three major Moscow-based English-language websites affiliated with or supportive of the Russian government: RT, the Russian-owned TV outlet; Sputnik News, a radio outlet; and Russia Insider, a blog that experts say closely follows the Kremlin line.” On the other hand, Russia is pretty widely loathed in the Democratic party right now, so it’s not surprising that RT and like-minded outlets would be eager to spotlight a Democratic lawmaker who isn’t denouncing Putin and the Russian government. (Right now, RT television is also pretty excited by Mike Gravel’s declaration that Joe Biden’s foreign policy is American imperialism.)

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No doubt, Gabbard’s worldview takes her far away from the rest of her party. In a March 2018 hearing, she suggested that the election meddling we saw from Russia in 2016 was more or less fair play considering past U.S. actions in other countries’ elections.

Gabbard said,

There was a study that was released the end of 2016 documenting 81 elections in 47 countries between 1946 and the year 2000 where the United States either overtly or covertly sought to influence the outcome of elections in these countries. We’re successful more often than not, and this doesn’t include any of the CIA or military regime change overthrows that also happened in addition to this. As recently as the Iraq War, during the Iraq War we paid millions of dollars to plant propaganda articles in Iraqi newspapers, sought to influence Russia’s elections in 1996. I say all this to raise the question about — if someone turns on cable news today, and to hear a lot of the conversations here, one would think that Russia’s actions in 2016, that this is the first time this has ever happened. And that the United States does not have the history that we do with the tactics that we have and may continue to use.

Gabbard’s overall record isn’t consistently pro-Russian; she’s voted for sanctions and condemned the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. What really sets her apart from the rest of the Democratic field (and most mainstream U.S. foreign-policy thought) was her adamant opposition to helping Syrian rebels, and her willingness to meet with Bashir Assad.

Where Russia has friends, Tulsi Gabbard is usually standing up for them, beyond Assad. She strongly objected to the arrest of Julian Assange. She accused “neocons, neolibs and the MSM” of pushing for war in Venezuela, where Russia is backing the Maduro regime, and scoffed “no wonder North Korea won’t give up their nukes.” She contended, “TV talking heads love trying to goad Trump into going to war w/ Russia.” In 2015, she defended Russia’s military operations in Syria: “Bad enough US has not been bombing al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria. But it’s mind-boggling that we protest Russia’s bombing of these terrorists.”

With all of that said, part of the freedom of thought in America is the freedom to be wrong. Gabbard’s general reluctance to confront Russia and its allies like Assad isn’t necessarily a reflection of a sinister Russian influence. She probably genuinely believes this is the best path to a safer America — and while her perspective may sound wrongheaded to many of us, she’s got the right to stand on a debate stage and make her sales pitch for it.

But you can’t ask for a more dramatic demonstration about how the view of Russia has changed in the Democratic party than a candidate taking money from three known “Russophiles” now warrants its own news story. Accepting campaign donations from Americans with pro-Russia views is neither a crime nor an ipso facto scandal. We’re a long, long way from “the 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back. The Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

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