Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman who backed Bernie Sanders in 2016, and met with president-elect Donald Trump and then with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2017, is officially running for president herself.
She revealed her 2020 plans during a taping of Van Jones’ CNN show, which airs Saturday evening, saying a formal announcement would be made in the coming weeks.
"There is one main issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of war and peace," Gabbard said. "I look forward to being able to get into this and to talk about it in depth when we make our announcement." Indeed, the issue of war has been central to Gabbard’s appeal on the left: a military veteran who deployed to Iraq, she has been a leading critic of “regime change,” particularly in Syria, arguing the U.S. government should instead work with dictators and their sponsors in the region in order to more effectively wage the war on terror.
Her office did not respond to requests for comment Friday evening.
Gabbard’s move comes amid an unusually public spat between her and fellow Hawaii Sen. Mazi Hirono. In a recent OpEd, Gabbard accused her fellow Democrat of “fomenting religious bigotry” over her questioning of a Trump judicial nominee, Brian Buescher, about his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic group that has funded a number of right-wing causes.
Gabbard’s father, a state lawmaker in Hawaii, is also a member of the Knights, who has also long been tied to a Krishna sect led by a guru named Chris Butler, who preaches that homosexuality is a sin. Defending her father in 2004, Gabbard responded to questions about this relationship by telling a reporter she could “smell a skunk,” writing: “It’s clear to me that you’re acting as a conduit for The Honolulu Weekly and homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case,” another Hawaii Democrat.
Gabbard, who deployed to Iraq in 2005 and is a major now in the National Guard, first rose to poltiical prominence as an official at the Democratic National Committee before resigning in 2016 to endorse the democratic socialist from Vermont. She is now a fellow at the Sanders Institute. But the 37-year-old’s own politics don’t track neatly with those of either party, and sometimes veer far to the right.
In 2015, for example, Gabbard joined congressional Republicans in voting for an “extreme vetting” bill that the Obama administration said would effectively bar the resettlement of Syrian refugees — the same year she was a keynote speaker at the Christians United for Israel summit in Washington, DC. Gabbard has also received criticism for meeting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a trip funded by a far-right political organization that has also facilitated visits to Damascus by members of Greece’s Golden Dawn. Gabbard, who has also been criticized for meeting with Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, later returned the money.
Asked about the news of her presidential campaign, a prominent Democratic strategist joked to The Daily Beast: “HQ in Damascus?”
Gabbard was also the first Democrat to meet with Donald Trump after his win in 2016, when she was reportedly being considered for a position within the administration. That offer never came, and she harshly criticized Trump’s cosmetic strikes on the Assad regime following chemical attacks in 2017 and 2018, while defending his more recent call to remove troops from the county. She has also called Trump “Saudi Arabia’s bitch” and complained that he failed to achieve his neo-isolationist “America First” policy.
By announcing her run now, Gabbard beats to the campaign trail the man for whom she cut ads the last time around, potentially siphoning off support in what looks to be a crowded field. She’s already pulled away at least one Sanders supporter: Her 2020 campaign manager, Rania Batrice, was Sanders’ deputy campaign manager in 2016.
—Maxwell Tani contributed reporting.