From Hillary to Hannity, it’s been a wild few days for a certain Hawaii Democrat.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard capped off her week by announcing on Friday that she will not seek re-election to the House and instead will focus on her longshot bid for president.
She wouldn’t be the first politician to bet it all on the nomination. But a series of other decisions—including her appearances on Trump-aligned media outlets—has observers speculating about Gabbard’s end game.
“Anyone who’s not named Bernie Sanders won’t appoint her to anything in the cabinet,” a Democratic strategist familiar with Gabbard’s political career in Hawaii said. “If Trump is re-elected, would she consider something with him?”
After all, while Gabbard endorsed Sanders in 2016, she later met with Trump’s transition team and was reportedly considered for several administration posts.
Gabbard’s announcement that she is leaving Congress after four terms came early Friday morning when she explained to her constituents that she needs to put all of her effort into winning the Democratic nomination.
“As President, I will immediately begin work to end the new Cold War and nuclear arms race, end our interventionist foreign policy of carrying out regime change wars, and redirect our precious resources towards serving the needs of the people here at home,” Gabbard said in a video message, clad in her now-trademark white suit. “As such, I will not be seeking re-election to Congress in 2020, and humbly ask you for your support for my candidacy for President of the United States.”
To those paying attention to Gabbard’s standing back home, her departure wasn’t a surprise. The 38-year-old faced a significant primary challenge from state Sen. Kai Kahele, and had let her House fundraising lapse to the point that her campaign raised a net negative $20 in the second quarter of 2019.
She has shooed away speculation that she would launch a third-party bid and insisted the 2020 Democratic nomination is her only path forward. But her recent appearances on Fox News and willingness to take a page out of Trump’s greatest hits by attacking Hillary Clinton—and publicly questioning the House impeachment inquiry—generated further buzz about her closeness to the fringes of Trumpworld.
“My plan is to win the Democratic nomination and the general election. I’m not looking beyond that,” Gabbard told The Daily Beast in a statement.
Gabbard has shown a willingness to use negative attention to her advantage, so when it was reported that Hillary Clinton said in an interview on David Plouffe’s Campaign HQ that Russians were “grooming” the Hawaii congresswoman, she pounced.
“Great! Thank you @HillaryClinton,” Gabbard wrote in a tweet thread. “You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a… concerted campaign to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and… powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose. It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”
The fact that a Clinton spokesman later explained that Clinton was referring to Republicans, not Russians, doing the “grooming” hardly mattered to Gabbard, who happily fueled days of mainstream and conservative media coverage.
Networks from CNN and MSNBC to Fox News rotated panels of commentators to discuss the spat throughout the week, with loyalists of the former secretary of state rushing to her defense, and allies in some progressive circles expressing support for Gabbard.
Gabbard appeared on Trump ally Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Thursday night, where she criticized Congress’ “partisan” impeachment inquiry, only hours before she announced her intention to not seek re-election.
“I think it needs to be a transparent process,” Gabbard said to Hannity. “I have long expressed my concern about going through impeachment proceedings in a very, very partisan way because it will only tear apart an already divided country.” She went on: “I don't know what's going on in those closed doors, we in Congress don't have access to the information that is being shared.”
In some conservative circles, Trump-aligned media pundits and provocateurs welcomed the opportunity to share thoughts on what Gabbard appears to be up to, drawing parallels between her insurgent mentality and the president’s own, as well as her willingness to embrace full-throated attacks on Clinton, a favorite nemesis of the GOP.
“Tulsi has won the respect of a lot of influential Trump supporters,” Jack Posobiec, One America News Network host and conspiracy-peddler told The Daily Beast. “The base is still against her on the issues, but there's a respect for her speaking truth to power on her own side. We all feel the same way about Hillary.”
Gabbard, who is polling at approximately 1.3 percent, is a debate wildcard—and aides to Democratic campaigns privately worry about her, expressing frustration that they’re unable to plan for her potential attacks. So far, she has not yet qualified for the November debate in Atlanta.
There’s hardly any consensus from Democrats and Republicans alike about whether Gabbard may launch a third-party run, something she has shot down multiple times, or whether she could mount a Senate challenge to Hawaii Sens. Brian Schatz or Mazie Hirono. But there’s interest from both parties in following her next moves.
“Tulsi’s running an insurgent campaign inside the DNC primary, not dissimilar to what Trump did in 2016 with the RNC,” Posobiec said. “She won’t be the nominee, but she’ll become a force to be reckoned with because she isn’t going make Bernie’s mistake selling out and endorsing the party nominee. Whatever she decides to do, she’s got the ball and she’s running with it.”