Tulsi Gabbard’s Attack on Dems Is Being Exploited by the Right. She Doesn’t Approve.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is running for president as a Democrat, but an influential right-wing organization is dropping $1.5 million to run a television ad that features recent comments from the White House hopeful hammering members of her own party over their alleged “bigotry.”

“President Trump and Senate Republicans are setting records,” states the ad from the Judicial Crisis Network, a group founded in 2004 to help secure the confirmation of right-wing judges to the federal judiciary. On that point, the ad’s narrator states that “Democrats are taking their obstruction to disgraceful new lows,” with the on-screen text quoting a recent column by Gabbard in which she accused some of her colleagues of “fomenting bigotry, fears and suspicions” over one nominee’s religious background.

The quote comes from a column Gabbard wrote earlier this year, just days before announcing her presidential campaign, in which she conflated criticism of the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic group that has donated millions of dollars to Republicans and right-wing groups such as the Federalist Society, with an attack on Catholicism itself.

Brian Buescher, a Trump nominee for the US District Court in Nebraska, had been questioned over his association with the group by Senators Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, and Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, who noted its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. This, according to Gabbard, amounted to politicians having “weaponized religion for their own selfish gain.”

Gabbard’s father, Michael, a member of the Hawaii state senate, is a member of the Knights of Columbus, while Gabbard was a member of her father’s Alliance for Traditional Marriage, a group that opposed same-sex marriages. As a state lawmaker herself, Gabbard also spoke out against “homsexual-advocacy organizations,” a past for which she recently apologized.

Gabbard’s office said it does not approve of the Judicial Crisis Network’s message nor its weaponizing of her comments, either — even as right-wing sites such as Breitbart hail her appearance in the ad.

“As Rep. Gabbard clearly stated in her Op-Ed, she is opposed to Brian Buescher’s nomination to the U.S. District Court in Nebraska,” spokesperson Lauren Mcilvaine said in an email. “Our office was not consulted, nor do we support this ad or its message.”

Asked for comment, the Judicial Crisis Network deflected.

“We join with Congresswoman Gabbard in flatly rejecting the bullying and anti-religious bigotry of Senate Democrats,” said Carrie Severino, the group’s policy director.

As The Daily Beast reported in 2015, the group has spent millions of dollars to block liberal justices and confirm conservative ones, and has ties to a network “of conservative donors… led by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.”

At the time of her column, former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie speculated that “the editorial was written in conjunction with the plan to announce her run for president,” The Hill reported. “People who support her presidential campaign probably think it will be helpful, but I’m not sure.”

Hirono, meanwhile, declared it “unfortunate” that “Gabbard based her misguided opinion on the far-right wing manipulation of these straightforward questions.”

Under President Barack Obama, Gabbard was a regular guest on Fox News, where she criticized the president for not explicitly condemning “radical Islam.” Such appearances helped make her something of a star on the right — and, reportedly, Steve Bannon’s favorite Democrat. She was the first Democrat to visit Donald Trump after his shock win in 2016. Her next high-profile visit was with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom she has defended against charges, confirmed by the United Nations, that his security forces have used chemical weapons on civilian populations.

Charles Davis
Charles Davis is a journalist in Los Angeles who has covered Congress for public radio and written for outlets such as Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily Beast, and The Guardian.