If Everyone Is a Russian Asset, No One Is a Russian Asset

If Everyone Is a Russian Asset, No One Is a Russian Asset

We're experiencing Trump-Russia all over again. But maybe the Democratic base will see the unfounded accusations for what they always were -- hysterical.
Erielle Davidson
By

Hillary Clinton’s careening and irresponsible attack on Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard for being “a Russian asset” last week did more than just damage political discourse in America. They might have, inadvertently, done the country a favor.

In a bizarre podcast interview with former Obama White House Advisor David Plouffe, Clinton declared that one female candidate for 2020 was being “groomed” to be a third-party candidate–seemingly by the Russians. 

While Clinton’s prior allegations about Donald Trump were embraced by Democratic partisans looking for excuses to blunt the reality of their 2016 election loss, that might not be the case this time. By attacking Gabbard, Clinton reinvigorated the very tactic she employed against Trump, only this time, it’s possible Democratic primary voters will see the tactic in a new light, as an unappealing mixture of cynical and hysterical.

Clinton smarmily alleged, “I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.” In a replay of her 2016 Russian collusion accusations against then-candidate Trump, she added that Gabbard is “the favorite of the Russians.” 

Clinton’s accusations didn’t stop at Tulsi. She also accused Jill Stein of being in the pocket of the Russians. “That’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which, she might not ’cause she’s also a Russian asset. She’s a Russian asset, totally. They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate.”

Even as Clinton’s attacks have met massive public backlash, with Gabbard’s aggressive responses going wildly viral and spawning the hashtag #Queenofwarmongers. Many in the Democratic Party establishments and the media seemed unable to condemn her rhetoric.

On Friday, former third-party presidential candidate Evan McMullin joined the Tulsi pile-on, tweeting, “I believe it’s true. Tulsi Gabbard is with the Russians and the Russians are with Tulsi Gabbard. She confirms it every time she opens her mouth.” 

When pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper on whether he thought Tulsi was a “Russian asset,” 2020 Democratic hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg refused to answer the question beyond stating that Clinton lacked a “basis” for the accusation.

Clinton’s comments highlight the extent to which the left has normalized the invective of “Russian asset” to undercut political opponents. Hillary’s suggestion that Gabbard and Stein are Russian props indicates just how low the threshold for being labeled a “Russian asset” truly is; it cheapens an accusation that otherwise should carry tremendous weight. If everyone is a Russian asset, no one is a Russian asset.

Partisan and flippant accusations like these undermine the supposed seriousness of the Trump-Russia narrative, which has been on permanent life support after a lengthy investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. 

While there is plenty to be concerned about with Gabbard, accusations of “Russian grooming” do little to advance legitimate criticism of the candidate’s actual positions.

For me, Tulsi’s non-interventionism and ant-war rhetoric isn’t the problem. Her opposition to military deployments and skepticism of the last two decades of unwon wars in the Middle East is valuable. She channels the frustrations of millions of Americans who, after watching the messes made by our foreign policy elites, want the United States to do less abroad. Unfortunately, Tulsi swings wildly toward the other extreme, downplaying the threat posed by bad-faith actors from Iran to North Korea to Russia. 

While there is no evidence that Tulsi is a “Russian asset,” we also shouldn’t pretend that she hasn’t been favored by Russian news outlets for her more isolationist perspective and softened approach on murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, with whom she met in 2017 on an alleged “fact finding mission” and has defended in the past. As reported by NBC News back in January, Tulsi appeared on three major Russian news site about twice as much as the two then-most popular Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

But again, does this mean that Tulsi is somehow a prop of the Russians? Of course not. 

We can learn a great deal about where a candidate stands on certain issues from who appeals to her positions. Indeed, maybe if the Russians — our geopolitical foes in the Middle East and elsewhere — are cheering on Gabbard’s views, we should perhaps approach her stances with more skepticism. But behind Clinton’s accusation, there is a dangerous conflation taking place between a candidate drawing support from bad actors and actually working with those bad actors.  Using the term “asset” is a way to seemingly criminalize the uncriminal, and it’s wrong.

I was heavily critical of President Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement, the Iran deal. Although the mullahs were quite pleased to have sanctions lifted and the Iranian economy grew by 10 percent in 2016 as a consequence, I never once accused Obama of being an “Iranian asset.” I would have been laughed out of political circles and rightfully so.

Baseless accusations such as these, designed to put candidates on the perpetual defensive, suck up political oxygen. They unapologetically distract a candidate from discussing policy issues as he or she scrambles to combat unfounded narratives. 

More indirectly, they prevent voters from being able to substantively engage the candidate’s policy proposals, who is now wrapped up in the never-ending media barrage that accompanies a supposed scandal. As a result, all we see is red. And that’s a problem, not just for the candidate, but for the health of our political discourse.

By indulging the entirely baseless Trump-Russia narrative for the past several years, we’ve created a political class of individuals who have no problem shouting “Russian asset” with impunity. The truth is irrelevant in the hopes of kneecapping political opponents, and as a result, we have an army of tinfoil hats running interference on major news networks. 

As even former Federalist contributor Tom Nichols admitted in The Atlantic this past weekend, “Clinton’s accusation that Gabbard is a tool of the Russians was so blunt and clumsy that it has added new life to a primary bid that should never have existed in the first place.”  

For those of us who have serious reservations about Tulsi, Clinton’s conspiratorial theories force us to defend Gabbard, even if we find her track record on foreign policy to be misguided and dangerous. It wasn’t appropriate when Trump was baselessly called a Russian asset, and it’s not appropriate when Tulsi is called one, no matter how much one disagrees with her. 

Erielle Davidson is a Staff Writer at the Federalist and a law student at Georgetown University Law Center. Find her on Twitter at @politicalelle.

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