Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is being underwritten by some of the nation’s leading Russophiles.
Donors to her campaign in the first quarter of the year included: Stephen F. Cohen, a Russian studies professor at New York University and prominent Kremlin sympathizer; Sharon Tennison, a vocal Putin supporter who nonetheless found herself detained by Russian authorities in 2016; and an employee of the Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT, who appears to have donated under the alias “Goofy Grapes.”
Gabbard is one of her party’s more Russia-friendly voices in an era of deep Democratic suspicion of the country over its efforts to tip the 2016 election in favor of President Donald Trump. Her financial support from prominent pro-Russian voices in the U.S. is a small portion of the total she’s raised. But it still illustrates the degree to which she deviates from her party’s mainstream on such a contentious and high-profile issue.
Data on Gabbard’s financial supporters only covers the first three months of the year. In that time, her campaign received just over $1,000 from Cohen, arguably the nation’s leading intellectual apologist for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Tennison donated to Gabbard no fewer than five times, eventually reaching the per-cycle individual contribution limit in mid-March. Tennison and her group, the Center for Citizen Initiatives, have long worked to improve U.S.-Russia relations, in part by organizing junkets to the nation both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. She’s also been an outspoken Putin supporter, dubbing him a “straightforward, reliable and exceptionally inventive man” in a column last year. Tennison wrote that column in spite of her detention in Russia two years earlier, when she was accused of attempting to covertly advance U.S. foreign policy interests in the country.
Gabbard also got a $1,000 contribution from “Goofy Grapes,” who listed his or her occupation as “comedian” and employer as Redacted Tonight, a current events comedy show on Russian state-backed broadcaster RT. That show’s host, comedian Lee Camp, told The Daily Beast that the person who made the donation “is no longer an active member of Redacted Tonight. And separately, it is company policy to not donate to political campaigns.”
Camp, for his part, routinely promotes the Russian government line on major world affairs, most notably the invasion of Ukraine, political unrest in Venezuela, and the Syrian civil war.
To the extent that those donors toe the Kremlin line on issues such as Syria, they’re more squarely in line with Gabbard’s own views than those of any other Democratic presidential candidate. As a member of Congress, she has personally met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and cast doubt on widely accepted reports that he deployed nerve gas weapons against his own people.
Gabbard has also been one of the few prominent Democrats in the country to downplay the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. The report found no evidence of a conspiracy by the Trump campaign to support that meddling. But it did provide extensive details of that malicious influence campaign, and of the Trump administration's efforts to impede the special counsel’s investigation.
But while her House colleagues ramp up their own investigations, in part based on those findings, Gabbard has called for the country—and her party—to move on. “The conclusion that came from that Mueller report was that no collusion took place,” she told Fox News last month. “Now is the time for us to come together as a country to put the issues and the interests and the concerns that the American people have at the forefront, to take action to bring about real solutions for them."
That reflects the attitude of a small set of the American left wing, a non-interventionist faction that eyed collusion allegations with suspicion. And that’s very much the school of thought from which Cohen and other Gabbard donors hail.
But the list of controversial donors to Gabbard, as detailed by her filings with the Federal Election Committee, doesn’t end there.
Susan Sarandon, the famous actress who earned the enduring wrath of Democrats for her support of Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the 2016 election, gave Gabbard $500.
Ali Amin, the president of Primex International, wrote two checks of $2,800 to Gabbard’s campaign. Amin, who runs the international food distribution company, pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges that he’d transferred more than $17 million between Iran and the United States as part of an unlicensed business transaction.
After being asked about those donations, Cullen Tiernan, a spokesperson for Gabbard, said the campaign would be returning them. Tiernan also noted that Amin had given to fellow 2020 contender Sen. Kamala Harris' (D-CA) Senate campaign in 2018. Ian Sams, a spokesman for Harris, said the Senator refunded Amin's donation in July 2018.
Gabbard’s campaign did not return a request for comment. Her election effort raised nearly $4.5 million in the first quarter of 2019, but that included hefty transfers from her House campaign committee. She has used that money to mount a rather unorthodox bid for the Democratic nomination. Gabbard had only one paid staffer during that same three month period, choosing instead to hire consultants for key posts on her campaign—a staffing decision that seemed likely done to avoid making hefty payments for things like health care coverage and payroll taxes.
Gabbard’s media strategy has also been counterintuitive for a national Democrat. She has made several appearances on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, which, while being one of the most popular platforms on that medium, is a haven for Trump-supporting guests. Gabbard also is among the few Democrats who has a captive audience on Fox News, owed largely to her willingness to criticize Barack Obama, as well as her party’s planks on both Russia and foreign policy in general. Tucker Carlson, a primetime host on that network, has publicly defended her.
Though she has not courted their support, some prominent figures in the white nationalist community have flocked in Gabbard’s direction. David Duke, the former KKK leader, has heaped praise on her. And on several occasions, Richard Spencer, the avowed white supremacist, has tweeted favorably about her, including once again this week.