WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard had a rough morning Wednesday.
The Hawaii congresswoman, who’s hoping to secure the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe for an interview about her candidacy.
And while the studio might have seemed like a friendly environment for someone who touts herself as a progressive, the hosts were not so warm and fuzzy.
They questioned Gabbard about everything from her 2017 meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and her backing by Russian propagandists to her recent endorsement from David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, support she quickly disavowed.
“I think what he stands for and his actions are despicable,” she said.
Gabbard was repeatedly asked about her relationship with Assad, whose regime has used chemical weapons against his own people to squelch a rebellion.
Gabbard told the hosts she does not consider Assad an “enemy” of the U.S. because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the country. But when asked if he was an “adversary” she repeatedly dodged.
“If you cannot say he’s an adversary or an enemy, what is Assad to the U.S.? What is the word?” Mika Brzezinski asked.
“You can describe it however you want to describe it,” Gabbard replied.
“I want to know how you describe it,” Brzezinski repeated.
“My point is that whether it is Syria or any of these other countries we need to look at how their interests are counter to or aligned with ours,” Gabbard said.
Gabbard later conceded it was “possible” Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, and that her previous skepticism about his actions stemmed from the Iraq War when Americans were lied to about weapons of mass destruction as a premise for invasion.
The congresswoman served in Iraq as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, and on Wednesday used that experience to pitch for an end to regime change wars, something that has become a familiar talking point for her as she advocates for peace.
“The reality is the trillions of dollars that we spend on these wars is coming out of the pockets of American taxpayers who have very real needs that need to be addressed here at home,” she said.
Another testy exchange came when Kasie Hunt, a Washington correspondent for NBC News, pressed Gabbard on a recent report from her news agency that showed how Russia’s propaganda machine appeared to be backing the congresswoman’s campaign for president.
It was a damaging story that published on Saturday, the same day Gabbard held her official campaign kickoff in Hawaii. Gabbard has been trying to discredit it ever since, pointing mostly to criticisms of the piece from Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept.
Gabbard seized on Greenwald’s critiques involving the credibility of one of the sources used by NBC News. She took to Twitter and said that NBC News had used “journalistic fraud to discredit our campaign.”
@ggreenwald exposes that @NBC used journalistic fraud to discredit our campaign. But more important is their motive: “to smear any adversary of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party – whether on the left or the right – as a stooge or asset of the Kremlin.” https://t.co/JnROpficM9
On Morning Joe, Gabbard delivered a similar — if less brazen — response when questioned by Hunt about the assertions made in the NBC News piece.
“I want to point out that that NBC News article has been debunked and disproven,” Gabbard said.
“By whom?” Hunt asked.
“I would ask you to look at the credibility of the sources and the so-called experts,” Gabbard said.
The congresswoman added that it was “very dangerous” for NBC News to publish the piece that it did. She said putting out such information only seeks to “bully people” who take positions such as hers.
“So you’re essentially saying that you do not think that Russians are helping you at all and that in fact any reporting to that effect is bullying Americans into not supporting you?” Hunt asked.
“What I’m saying is that article that was put out has been proven to be discredited, the experts have been proven to be discredited,” Gabbard said.
“The American people deserve the truth and they deserve to know exactly what’s happening to make sure whether it’s me or other candidates who are running for president are not immediately attempted to be discredited simply because of the message that we’re delivering,” she said.
Gabbard then said, in response to a question from Joe Scarborough, that she has not had any contact with Russians in recent years.
NBC News, meanwhile, has not backed down from its story. No corrections or retractions have been issued and several reporters, including Ben Popken, who co-authored the piece, have defended the story. Popken even described Gabbard’s pushback as a “bogus conspiracy theory.”
After the show, Hunt also took to Twitter to reaffirm the veracity of the NBC News article and defend her colleagues.
“Here is the ‘debunking’ of the NBC News report from RT, the Russian state media,” Hunt wrote. “You tell me which you think is more credible.”
Here is the “debunking” of the NBC News report from RT, the Russian state media. You tell me which you think is more credible https://t.co/naNNXlfFKa