Progressives Say Kamala Harris Team 'Inventing Conspiracies' About Tulsi Gabbard Rather Than Addressing Critiques

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) attacked Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) during last night's primary debate. Harris' allies responded with a theory about a nefarious Russian plot. (screenshot: CNN)

Progressives Say Kamala Harris Team 'Inventing Conspiracies' About Tulsi Gabbard Rather Than Addressing Critiques

"Why are people attacking the messenger rather than addressing the criticisms?"

Supporters of Sen. Kamala Harris' run for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary nomination suggested Thursday that criticisms of Harris' record as a prosecutor in California were being driven by a Russian disinformation plot, a theory that was met with ridicule from progressives.

"The questions asked of Senator Harris last night were more than reasonable and should have been asked by the moderators."
--Rebecca J. Kavanagh

In Wednesday's second primary debate on CNN, Harris faced tough questions on her record as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011 and California attorney general from 2011 to 2017 from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). In a blistering series of criticisms of Harris' tenures, Gabbard accused Harris of not doing enough to change the brutality of the criminal justice system.

"The bottom line is, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people's lives, you did not and worse yet in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so," said Gabbard. "There's no excuse for that and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor--you owe them an apology."

Republican strategist Shermichael Singleton, in comment to The Washington Post, said the exchange didn't reflect well on Harris.

"Gabbard is a nonissue because she won't make it to the final debates," said Singleton, "but Harris showed that when cornered, she doesn't perform very well."

Harris after the debate dismissed Gabbard as an "Assad apologist," a reference to the Hawaii congresswoman's perceived coziness with Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

"Gabbard is bad but she had Kamala dead to rights and this is the best response the senator has?" tweeted progressive news outlet The District Sentinel. "For an attack line that has been going viral for years?"

Gabbard, in comment to The Hill on Thursday, called the California senator's remarks "pathetic."

"Honestly, it's pathetic that when confronted with the facts and the truth about her record that she claims to be proud of as a prosecutor, as attorney general of California, all she can do is lob cheap smears," said Gabbard.

It wasn't just Syria. On Wednesday night, Harris' campaign jumped to tie Gabbard and her campaign to a nebulously defined and unclear Russian conspiracy.

"Reporters writing their stories with eyes on the modern-day assignment desk of Twitter, read this," said Harris press secretary Ian Sams, sharing a February story from NBC News claiming that Russia is behind the Gabbard campaign. Multiple attempts using a variety of communication tools to reach Sams for comment were not returned.

The NBC story was criticized at the time by The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald, who was skeptical of the sourcing:

The only "expert" cited by NBC in support of its key claim was the firm New Knowledge, which just got caught by TheNew York Times fabricating Russian troll accounts on behalf of the Democratic Party in the Alabama Senate race to manufacture false accusations that the Kremlin was interfering in that election.

Irrespective of the story's validity, the idea that Gabbard's criticisms of Harris were based in Russian disinformation caught fire Thursday, with a number of prominent Democrats and analysts for news network MSNBC piling on the attacks.

"And what's top story at RT (Russia Today) this morning after #DemDebate?" tweeted MSNBC contributor and senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University Clint Watts. "Of course, what everyone saw right? Social media going wild for Tulsi Gabbard, populist, after she went after establishment Dem Harris who happens to be on Senate Intel Committee (Russia Investigation)."

Not to be outdone, Richard Stengel, another MSNBC analyst who served as former President Barack Obama's under secretary of State, implied in a tweet that Gabbard's criticisms of Harris' record were part of a deep-cover attack on Harris, who could be an undefined "threat" to Russian interests.

"This is a clear example of Russian disinformation happening in real time," claimed Stengel. "A hashtag created and promoted by Russia Today against Kamala Harris & supporting Rep. Gabbard, who is an apologist for another Putin puppet, Bashar Assad."

"This is a sign that Harris is seen as a threat," intoned Stengel.

Progressives, many of whom have their own issues with Gabbard for her views on foreign policy and problematic comments from her past, took issue with a framing of the criticism of Harris that sidestepped the substance of the attack by tying Gabbard to Russia.

In a series of tweets, defense attorney and legal commentator Rebecca J. Kavanagh said that accusing Gabbard of being a Russian pawn didn't meet the smell test.

"This idea that anyone who criticizes Kamala Harris is a Russian bot or plant or working for MAGA is RIDICULOUS," tweeted Kavanagh. "The questions asked of Senator Harris last night were more than reasonable and should have been asked by the moderators."

"People have every right to question Tulsi Gabbard about her own record, but this does not make the points she made about Kamala Harris inaccurate or unfair," Kavanagh added. "Why are people attacking the messenger rather than addressing the criticisms?"

The Intercept's Mehdi Hasan made a distinction between Gabbard's views on foreign policy and her critiques of Harris.

"Lets be clear," tweeted Hasan, "Gabbard's refusal to condemn Assad is awful and revealing but it doesn't change the fact that her attack on Harris was legitimate and accurate and Harris has questions to answer about her record in California."

Writer Leslie Lee III dismissed the entire Russian conspiracy theory in toto.

"People are inventing conspiracies about Tulsi Gabbard being a Russian agent in order to prove it's a conspiracy theory that Kamala Harris spent her whole life putting black people in prison," said Lee.

Instead, Lee suggested, there could be another option.

"What if Kamala Harris just spent her whole life putting black people in prison then decided in the last two years to pretend she gives a shit about black people because she needs our votes and cred?" Lee said. "Seems simpler."

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