Even if one shares Clinton’s suspicions of Stein and Gabbard—and, as a longtime observer of Soviet and Russian government, I do—her decision to inject herself into the 2020 election was a mistake. It was exactly the kind of clumsy, self-absorbed move that, despite Clinton’s lifetime in the public eye, revealed a total misunderstanding of how politics work. Far from exposing or thwarting Gabbard, as Clinton loyalists want to believe, the former secretary of state overshot the mark by making an accusation without proof. Gabbard will now dismiss real concerns about her as just so much conspiracy theorizing.
Clinton is right that there is plenty to worry about with Gabbard. Indeed, debate moderators and other Democratic candidates should have never let her escape the first debates without direct questions about her unnatural fluency with both Syrian and Russian talking points. Gabbard even emulates the stiff, unnatural cadences of Russian rhetoric, as when she referred to Clinton on Twitter as the “queen of the warmongers”—the Russians used to refer to the close Clinton ally Madeleine Albright as “Madam War.” She repeatedly echoes pro–Bashar al-Assad propaganda in using the phrase regime-change war to describe the U.S. presence in Syria.
Moreover, Clinton is also right that both Stein and Gabbard are favorites of the Russian government, which has rushed social-media bots and state-controlled media to their defense at various times. Stein even got a seat at a dinner with Vladimir Putin, an honor one might think is a bit out of the weight class of a super-minor American candidate. The fact that Stein was sitting at the same table as Putin, along with the retired general, future Donald Trump appointee, and current felon Michael Flynn, should have raised alarm bells because Putin never wastes a minute of his day on people who cannot be of use to him. But once Trump was in the race, Russia focused its efforts on getting him elected, and Stein was left to do what damage she could as a third-party spoiler.
At this point, three years after the 2016 election, dwelling on Stein’s relationship with Russia is just crying over spilled vodka. Clinton’s mistake was to raise Gabbard’s profile, and then to throw around the term Russian asset.
To call someone a Russian asset implies willful coordination and awareness. It is not the same thing as being friendly to the Russian point of view. Nor is it akin to being compromised by knowing that the Russians have damaging material—as so many have speculated is the case with President Trump. Think of being a Russian asset as something in between cluelessness and conspiracy. But without further evidence, all Clinton managed to do was prepare the ground for Gabbard to dismiss all future accusations or revelations as just more grandstanding from a defeated and bitter 2016 nominee.