Is Hillary Clinton playing into Trump’s and Putin’s hands?

Neither Jill Stein or Tulsi Gabbard is a classic Manchurian candidate, destined to lead the US while controlled by  a foreign power, but they are both at least–  to use the term devised by Vladimir Lenin to describe unwitting allies of nefarious propaganda campaigns – “useful idiots.” They’ve been or are being used by Russian operatives and should be called out as such. But Hillary Clinton is the last person who should be delivering this message.

In her 2012 and 2016 races, Green Party presidential candidate Stein was a frequent guest on RT, the Russian government-controlled English language broadcast, and its online outlet, Sputnik. She sat at the Vladimir Putin’s head table at a well publicized 2016 dinner and afterwards echoed Russian talking points in some of her messaging.

The Mueller report in its indictments of Russian meddlers took note of their insidious support of Stein. A Senate intelligence committee investigation similarly documented how Russia used social media to help Trump and hurt Clinton by inflaming right-wing conspiracy theories and working to foster distrust among and suppress the vote of African- Americans and other left-leaning groups. An NBC investigation echoed those findings. Shortly before the 2016 election, trolls connected to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency used a fake Instagram account called “woke Blacks” to push the Stein candidacy, exhorting “grow a spine and vote for Stein.” Although the total votes changed may have been relatively small, the combination of voter suppression and Jill Stein advocacy helped contribute to Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory margin in the whisper-close election.

It’s not clear whether Jill Stein will run again this year, but Russian troll farms allied with Vladimir Putin are hard at work pushing the candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard. As I noted last week, over 40 percent of Drudge Report “poll” respondents picked Gabbard as the last Democratic debate’s winner, more than the combined totals of Biden, Sanders and Warren. Another NBC news analysis, last February, noted how Russian influence operations “celebrated Gabbard’s announcement” and praised her private meeting with Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad. NBC claimed Kremlinologists tracking Moscow’s digital operations observed “what they believe may be the first stirrings of an upcoming Russian campaign of support for Gabbard.” White nationalists,  including former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, have also embraced her candidacy. Gabbard has distanced herself from some of her Alt Right claque, but I’m unaware that she has renounced unequivocally any  Russian support she may be benefiting from.

Her soft spot for notorious authoritarian leaders doesn’t stop with Assad. Her rhetoric concerning international human rights abuses would be more believable if it weren’t so selective. Look at what she’s said about Egypt strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Remember her courtship by Steve Bannon and her willingness to consider working in the Trump administration.   Check out her apparently uncritical embrace of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a man with blood on his hands for his treatment of non-Hindus. She opposed House Resolution 417, including language designed to encourage Indian tolerance toward non-Hindus. As media critic Dan Kennedy pointed out, questioning sources of Gabbard’s support is neither unfair nor without foundation and CNN’s Van Jones is way off base in his melodramatic expression of outrage.

Gabbard’s race for President appears to be going nowhere. Were she to be transformed instead into a well-funded dark money/dark arts independent candidate, she could, like Jill Stein in 2016, play a disruptive role. But she doesn’t need to run as a third party candidate (which she said on August 29 she wouldn’t do)  to be a factor. All she needs is a platform to make claims like Assad and his ilk are not enemies, push Putin talking points about America and NATO as warmongers, and reinforce Trump’s fear-mongering presumption that all Moslems are terrorists. She could stay in the race until the convention and give a powerful and memorable speech delegitimizing our democracy and have Russian operatives from now to next November amplify her message with a social media-driven counterfeit grassroots campaign.

Enter Hillary Clinton, who just transformed an important issue of legitimate public concern into a distracting sideshow.  She’s understandably still angry with Stein for her 2016 spoiler role and with Gabbard for her steadfast support of Bernie Sanders. Russian meddling and the Americans whom Putin may manipulate are a serious matter, but Hillary’s baggage undercuts her value as an effective Cassandra.

As Justin Amash (I-Mich.) the first Republican Congressman to endorse impeachment, said, Hillary Clinton’s attack suggesting that 2020 Democratic hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) was being groomed by Russia to run as a third-party candidate,  “only helps President Trump‘s reelection efforts” and “bolsters Trump’s ‘hoax’ nonsense.” Gabbard doesn’t have to be a traditional Russian asset. Simply being “a useful idiot” featured on sites and bots used by the Russians to poison public dialogue and distort our political process can position Gabbard as a disruptive factor in 2020.

For Hillary Clinton, an otherwise highly intelligent person, to insert herself wittingly as the messenger of this insidious intrigue effectively makes her a Donald Trump asset and a boon to Vladimir Putin. Somewhere Vladimir Lenin is laughing his head off.

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