The Daily Beast yesterday published an article that immediately electrified liberal Twitter. The headline: “Accused Russian Agent Gave to One Politician: Tulsi Gabbard.”
A lot of accounts with blue waves and Ukrainian flags in their bios sprang into action. The former Hawaii congresswoman was quickly labeled a Russian “mole,” a Putin “asset,” and—depressingly—”Tulsi Moscow Gabbard.” Within hours, the story had racked up thousands of retweets and tens of thousands of likes.
The Daily Beast headline is certainly evocative, conjuring up a plot straight out of the FX TV show, The Americans. The problem, though, is that the allegation in the caveat-filled body of the article is a lot less scandalous than the headline makes it seem.
This is what the Daily Beast reported: Federal prosecutors are accusing dual Russian-American national Elena Branson (aka Elena Chernykh) of lobbying on behalf of the Kremlin for over a decade without registering to do so. At one point while Gabbard was in Congress, Branson began a lobbying campaign to block a local proposal to change the name of a 19th century Russian fort in Hawaii. During this process, a Kauai County councilwoman emailed the staffer of an unnamed representative (implied, but not confirmed, to be Gabbard), offering to connect the representative with Branson. Nine days later, Branson made two political donations to Tulsi Gabbard. The total amount, mentioned five paragraphs into the article: $59.95.
That’s not even enough to buy a single copy of the video game Elden Ring. (It is, however, enough to buy several subscriptions to the Mother Jones magazine, which you can, here, so I can finally buy myself a copy of Elden Ring.) Furthermore, a spokesperson told the Daily Beast that Gabbard plans to donate the money to a charity.
Tulsi has always been (to put it politely) a bit outside the mainstream. As a representative, she met with vicious Syrian dictator (and Putin ally) Bashar al-Assad and voiced skepticism of allegations that he carried out war crimes. Her shambolic primary campaign reportedly received widespread support from Russian bots and propaganda outlets and garnered plaudits from the likes of Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, David Duke, and Mike Cernovich. And since then, she’s leaned into her burgeoning support from the far right, even securing a CPAC speaking slot.
But Gabbard doesn’t have to be a Russian spy to have isolationist foreign policy views, to blame the invasion of Ukraine on the Biden administration and NATO, or even to receive approval from Russian propaganda outlets. (Like it or not, a number of other Americans seem to hold these opinions.) You can call Gabbard wrong, misguided, or bonkers, but a $60 donation from an alleged Russian agent, lobbying to preserve the name of a fort, is not enough to support Manchurian Candidate-style narratives that she’s somehow on Putin’s payroll.