North Korea poses a clear and growing threat to Hawaii, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, home for the April congressional recess, told a fractious town hall meeting in Kailua on Saturday night.
Just hours before the event began, the North Koreans attempted another missile launch, this time near Sinpo, a port city on the Sea of Japan. Gabbard told the audience at Kainalu Elementary School that she was “very concerned about North Korea,” and that her primary goal in Congress is establishing a missile defense system for Hawaii to fend off the threat of a strike on the state.
But North Korea wasn’t the topic foremost on the minds of many in the packed and uncomfortably hot auditorium.
Gabbard’s supporters were much in evidence, but many other people were there with pointed and frequently adversarial questions to raise. They wanted to know why Gabbard met with President-elect Donald Trump shortly after the election, and why she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of ordering chemical gas attacks on his own people, and why she had failed to co-sponsor or endorse legislation or petitions that they supported.
Gabbard said she met with Trump in November, at his invitation, to urge him to avoid additional U.S military involvement in Syria, and has had no further contact with him since that time.
“I wish he would listen to me,” she said, “and the people like you who are gathered here.”
Gabbard’s visit to Syria was disturbing to many of the attendees, who cheered questioners who asked about it.
“What was the goal or intention of being there and then, in particular, meeting with him?” one woman asked. “You are a legitimate representative for your country but when you meet with a monster like that you legitimize him,” she said.
Gabbard responded, as she has many times, that she met with Assad in an effort to see conditions there for herself, “in the cause of peace.” She said she is opposed to spending trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on well-intentioned wars that go awry at a time when schools and infrastructure needs in the United States go unfunded.
Last week, she publicly criticized Trump as “reckless” for ordering a military strike against a Syrian government airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack on a village of government opponents without first more thoroughly investigating the facts.
One woman asked why Gabbard hadn’t signed a petition opposing Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a far-right, nationalist website. Bannon, who had been an advisor for Trump during his campaign, was appointed White House strategist by Trump after the election.
“I’m trying to do what is best for the people of Hawaii,” Gabbard said. “I’m not going to get into a name-calling game; I don’t know what it accomplishes.”
Another questioner wanted to know when it would be possible to impeach President Trump, a suggestion that attracted cheers from many parts of the room.
Gabbard said it would not be a good idea to remove Trump from office because the ascension of Vice President Mike Pence would make for an “even worse situation.” Pence, a conservative Christian from Indiana, is an avid anti-abortion advocate and a former member of the congressional tea party caucus.
“We’ve got to be realistic about the table that’s been set before us,” Gabbard said.
Gabbard steered the conversation back to North Korea at several points. She emphasized the committee assignments she holds as a way to explain why she is in a strong position to know what is happening there.
Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Kuwait, sits on the House Armed Services committee, the Emerging Threats Subcommittee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the two subcommittees that focus on the Middle East and Asia.
She said she could not disclose all the information she knows about the threat from North Korea because some of the details have been disclosed to Congress by the Department of Defense in classified briefings, but she indicated the threat is real, increasing and underestimated by many people on the mainland.
“We’re a lot closer to North Korea than the contiguous United States,” she said, adding Hawaii is “placed directly into North Korea’s crosshairs.”
In April 2016, Gabbard successfully added two attachments to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017. They called for providing funding to a new ballistic missile defense radar in Hawaii and requiring the Missile Defense Agency to brief Congress on the risks to Hawaii and the possibility of enhancing anti-missile capabilities in Hawaii.
“My goal and my focus is urgently making sure we have a missile defense system physically here in Hawaii, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, that no external situation can erode,” she said.