An Interview With Tulsi Gabbard
On war, Mitt Romney, accusations of treason, the intel community, and Ukraine
A little over a week ago, Utah Senator Mitt Romney called former Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard “treasonous” over her comments on the war in Ukraine. Considering how the debate over American involvement in Ukraine has in such a short period of time shifted many of our assumptions about foreign policy, NATO, and the Russia-China alliance — including from former President Trump, sounding an increasingly hawkish tone — and led to increasingly heated language in describing opponents of more American involvement, it seemed like a good time to talk with the former member of Congress, who sparks such controversy with regularity and now seems far more popular on the American right than on the left. The interview below has been lightly edited.
Ben Domenech: So I want to start out with this: When you were growing up, what was your perspective on war?
Tulsi Gabbard: I can't say it was something I thought much about, to be honest. Growing up here in Hawaii it was kind of easy to be removed from it. It was really 9/11 that was a major wake up call, just for me personally, as it was with a lot of folks who probably weren't focused on foreign policy or the issues of war and peace before that.
Ben: How old were you and where were you when 9/11 happened?
Tulsi: I was 20. I was here in Hawaii and remember waking up and turning on the news and seeing the footage of the towers falling, over and over. Because of the time difference, it had already happened in the middle of the night for us.
Ben: Were you already in the military at the time? Were you in college?
Tulsi: Neither. I had left community college and was preparing to run for State House in Hawaii.
Ben: Your father was involved in politics at the time, right?
Tulsi: My parents are both teachers, and my family’s first foray into politics was when my mom ran for and won a statewide seat on the Board of Education for one of the largest school districts in the country. She was ahead of her time, working to empower parents to know and have a say in what their kids were being taught in school so they could prevent things like 7-year-olds being asked what their sexual or gender identity was.
My dad had never run for office before, but he was very involved politically working with religious leaders across the state, leading and organizing a ballot initiative to pass a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. In 2002, he ran for the City Council and I ran for state house – for both of us, it was our first campaign.
Ben: So it was kind of a family move, the feeling that you needed to get involved in reaction?
Tulsi: No, not really. We had individually already decided to run for office before 9/11 happened. For me, my motivation came from something I realized from a young age: that I was happiest when I was doing things for others, when I was trying to be of service.
I grew up with the ocean and the mountains as my playground. Respect for nature and a desire to protect this beautiful place that I got to call home came very naturally to me. I’d organize beach clean ups with friends as a kid. I started an environmental non-profit called Healthy Hawaii Coalition when I was teenager, focused on protecting and preserving clean water, worked with community leaders to stop a landfill from being built over one of our major water aquifers. So my decision to run for State House came from a desire to do more.
Ben: For a lot of us who were born in late 70s, early 80s this is kind of the first, major terrorist event on American shores since Oklahoma City. And it was something that was so jarring and unexpected.
The immediate thought that a lot of has had, obviously, was: we're going to war. That feeling is obviously something that has conflicting emotions in it. On the one hand, you're kind of bent on “we need to find the people who did this and end them” in the short term. But in the long, on the other hand, there’s kind of a natural revulsion to revenge.
What were you feeling when you saw that happen and you knew that there was going to be a follow on? Were you hesitant? Did you feel dovish? Or were you thinking: “We need to make sure this never happens again. And that means ending the people who did it.”
Tulsi: It was an immediate feeling of needing to go after the terrorists responsible for that horrific attack and wanting to protect and defend our country and our people. That was the visceral reaction that I had. I wanted to go after those responsible. The attack on 9/11 is what led to my conviction that the Islamist movement fueling al-Qaeda, ISIS & other jihadists is still our most dangerous enemy.
At that time, I didn't know exactly how or what would be the best way that I could serve, especially given what I was already trying to do to serve my community here in Hawaii. Eventually I decided to enlist in the Hawaii Army National Guard, where I could continue to serve my community, and serve my country in uniform.
Ben: Had you ever been to New York City?
Tulsi: No, I hadn't.
Ben: I still have a picture from when I was. I think I was 17 when I went to New York City to intern for National Review, in fact, and I have a picture from the top of the Empire State Building looking out at the at the Twin Towers that I took in 1999. There's a jarring effect to experiencing something like that in young life and then having it totally change and alter the path that you might have gone on.
When you look back at this, when you think about any of the decisions that you made after 9/11 that were in reaction to that, would you make them differently now? Or do you believe that you did the right thing – that you tried to be part of a war effort that was, for all of its failures and for its misbegotten nature, something that was at its core, honorable and well intentioned?
Tulsi: I don't have any regrets. Like so many people who were looking at what was happening, I believed so much of what we were being told by Hillary Clinton and President Bush about why we had to go to war in Iraq. And what we would find later to be lies. But I believed them initially.
Ben: I think most of us did believe.
Tulsi: When our National Guard unit was called up to deploy to Iraq, it was 2004. I was running for reelection for my seat in the State House when I found out that of the soldiers who were being deployed from our unit, my name was not in the deployment roster because somebody else was already filling the job that I was trained in, in a medical unit. I just knew that there was no way that I could stay home in beautiful Hawaii and watch my brothers and sisters go to war on the other side of the world.
So that's exactly what I told my commander – there's no way I'm staying back. Ultimately I withdrew from my reelection campaign, volunteered to go, got trained in a different job that they needed filling. I have no regrets whatsoever about going with my brothers and sisters, deploying to Iraq and experiencing and seeing firsthand the cost of war. That impacted me in a way that changed everything for me in my life.
Ben: I remember sitting and watching the presentation that Colin Powell gave in front of the UN. I think about it often. I feel like one of the things that makes me very upset about this moment that we inhabit today is that we still have a media conglomerate that treats the things that they are handed by our military and intelligence officers, intelligence officers as if it is gospel. Obviously, I know this is a completely non-comparable situation, but you had Joe Biden on stage in that debate, citing fifty high ranking people within the intelligence community, all these people who signed on to a letter saying that his son's laptop was an act of Russian misinformation or disinformation.
What does it take to reach a point where you say, “Our intel community is no longer serving the interests of the American people and ought to be questioned, on a much deeper level, about what's really going on and what their motivations are”?
Tulsi: You gave two great examples. There are many more examples of how the intelligence community has either failed or lied to us, provided information to serve a political outcome or agenda. It's incredibly dangerous. And this is why it is so important that we have leaders in government and in the media, real journalists who are discerning and asking questions, being somewhat cynical and not accepting something at face value.
I think back to the Chuck Schumer quote, that he gave on some interview, He was talking about Trump is an idiot to mess with the intelligence community because they can screw you six ways from Sunday, or something along those lines. And that right there was very revealing to me, as it should have been to everyone. How is it that one of the highest ranking US senators in the country is warning against messing with the intelligence community as though they are some autonomous, powerful body accountable to no one in the United States of America that no one can mess with.
That is such a chilling thing. And the only way to deal with this is, having people continue to push for the truth. And frankly, having people in leadership in our government expose this rot, and turn it inside out so that we actually do have people serving in these positions whose sole interest is serving the interests of the American people and our country - not one party over another, not any industry or another, or some independent entities with goals and objectives that have nothing to do with what's best for our country.
Ben: Isn't it funny how the administrative state that we have in Washington has decided that, not just the people, but their duly elected representatives, work for them, not the other way around? Regardless of party, it is one of the most true things in Washington and it is enduring and inevitable and immortal in terms of the way people act.
Tulsi: Exactly, and how dangerous it is that if one merely questions the information assessments or intelligence that is coming out of this national security state, you are castigated as a traitor or somebody who doesn't respect those who serve our country. It is such a dangerous state of affairs that goes against the foundation of this government that was built to be a government of, by, and for the people.
Ben: You're not someone who is unused to being called a traitor by idiots in the media, but it rises to a new level when it comes from a United States Senator. I understand disagreements. I understand that people use heated rhetoric. It's something that's been true of our politics for a long time. Hamilton and Jefferson called each other names. It's not something that's new. But I really think that calling someone a traitor is something that should be off the list. It's just not allowed. You can't do that. There are certain things that that means and it should make people hesitate before they ever use the term.
Tulsi: It’s a crime punishable by death.
Ben: Exactly. Can I just ask, did that hurt you? Did it hurt you personally, for Senator Romney to say that? Regardless of what you think of Mitt, did it strike deeper just because of the source that it came from?
Tulsi: It struck me because of the effect of him saying it. Because when you have a US Senator in Mitt Romney, when you have a former Secretary of State in Hillary Clinton, when you have powerful people in media, powerful people in politics say that a fellow American is treasonous or a traitor – knowing full well that it is a serious crime punishable by death – it has an extremely chilling effect on a free society, on people who expect that we have the freedom to speak without fear of being punished by the powers that be. It undermines our democratic republic.
That's why in my response, I responded with facts, because this was not a mere matter of disagreement of opinion. Mitt Romney and others from both parties, spent the last few days calling me a traitor or guilty of treason came in response to a very simple thing: my pointing out the facts and providing the evidence of there been biolabs in Ukraine, and that they deal with dangerous pathogens, and that they should be shut down or secured, period, to protect the world from those pathogens being released.
And so to Mitt Romney, I provided him the evidence and I just said either refute this or apologize and resign. Because people in power need to know that calling someone a traitor, that being guilty of treason, is not a small thing. And we as a country shouldn't treat it as such, either. They need to know that this is something that will not be tolerated or excused. Not because it has to do with Mitt Romney and Tulsi Gabbard, but because of the chilling effect that it has on our country. And because people who are watching and saying, “Oh, wow, this is how they treat Tulsi Gabbard, I'm going to think twice before I ask that question or say anything.”
Ben: When you have a an established narrative about the way that policy ought to be made, or the direction it ought to take, we've reached a level as a country where if you dispute that, even if it's a completely valid thing – even if you're the president of the United States – you can be impeached for for disagreeing with the consensus administrative view in support of sending unconditional aid to Ukraine or any other effort. And to me, I find that profoundly disturbing.
When it comes to your own policy preferences, I don't actually think your opinions on Ukraine are that far out of the mainstream of American politics. You might have been one of the additional votes the other day, I don't want to claim to think how you would have voted on the Belarus-Russia trade vote. But there were eight Republicans who took a vote against it, including Matt Gaetz and Chip Roy and Thomas Massie, and others. They don't become traitors just because they have a difference of opinion on the nature of American trade, or how it ought to be used when it comes to foreign affairs. I disagree with them. I would have voted on the other side. But I'm just disgusted by this whole idea that people are no longer allowed to disagree on matters of significant policy, without being called a traitor who is at odds with the very existence of the American project.
Why do you think we got to that point and why is something like that just an insult like that now accepted and even encouraged by our political and media establishment?
Tulsi: It’s something that both sides levy. Some Democrats and some Republicans are guilty of this. And rather than actually have any kind of discussion or debate based on substance or being critical of someone based on the substance, bringing what they believe is a superior argument, they resort to questioning someone's patriotism or saying you're a traitor or you hate America.
And to me, it really exposes the people who do this, it exposes their own fear and insecurity around their own argument, or the weakness of it, of their propaganda and lies. Their weakness is exposed by shining the light of truth, actual discourse and debate and dialogue, the open discussion of ideas – things that are really at the heart of the freedom that our country was founded on. The fact that they're not willing to do that, and instead resort to these kinds of terrible smears and name calling – and then obviously you've got big tech involved with deciding who should be censored and silenced and whose voice gets to be heard and not heard – ultimately, it shows how afraid they all are.
Ben: We're now in this new realm where the people who want to defend the established narrative feel like they're in a position to write people out of polite society, the public square. But the reality is that what they're doing whenever they go down that path is actually create a huge problem for the country. They are ruining the discourse by saying, we can't even talk about such things. So they have to be banished to platforms where millions of people still listen to them. alternate streams of media where in trying to silence this debate, you're only driving people into their corners and making sure that nobody really ends up talking to each other anymore. Is this the kind of silo that you think steps like the one that Senator Romney took are helping to create?
Tulsi: Yes, without a doubt, it is. It is not only tearing our country apart but it's also creating a lot of distrust from a lot of Americans across the country who fall in different places on the political spectrum and who still value that public discourse, who want to hear different perspectives, who maybe haven't made up their minds on certain issues. Instead of being able to ask: “What's going on here? What's really happening? What does this person think? What does that person think?” so that they can come to their own conclusions, they are just being fed one line of propaganda from one side. That's why we're seeing more and more people going away from mainstream media news sources and either turning it all off altogether or looking for other alternatives and new places to try to gather their information.
What's really concerning is that you have these voices in the media, whether they are opinion pundits or people who pose as journalists, who just flat out lie. They lie, and they do it on national television, and there's no consequence to it. You mentioned that letter that was signed by the 50 intelligence community officials current about Hunter Biden's laptop. They very clearly did it to influence voters. And what was the consequence to them for that lie? Nothing, nothing. Absolutely nothing. They just get their contracts renewed. They keep their jobs. They get promoted. When we can't trust journalists and can't trust the media, we can't trust the intelligence community, when we can't trust those who we’ve traditionally gone to for information, it just further erodes the foundation of our democracy.
Ben: Back to Ukraine. What's the best possible and state for the current conflict? What should the United States do to try to encourage that end state arriving? And how do you believe that it's going to change the way that Europe and particularly NATO acts in the coming years, given that it seems to have solidified and strengthened the resolve of that alliance in a way that, for people like me, who thought it was basically useless for the past decade and a half, has been kind of surprising? Look into your crystal ball here for a minute and tell me what's coming.
Tulsi: What needs to happen is what should have happened from the beginning that could have prevented these atrocities and this war from occurring in this first place -- Putin, Zelenskyy, Biden, and the leaders of NATO engaging in direct diplomacy and taking NATO off the table for Ukraine. Provide the security guarantees that Ukraine will remain a neutral buffer state. NATO will not pursue bringing Ukraine as a member state or place its military within Ukraine's borders. And the same goes for Ukraine with Russia, that Ukraine will remain a neutral state. This has really been the thing that for years has been clear from Putin as the red line.
Ben: Is this truly a situation where we can have that kind of sit down with good faith and with an amount of trust necessary for that kind of direct diplomacy to work? Many of the people I trust on Russia affairs, who have been writing about a lot of things about Russia that the mainstream media has been wrong about in recent years, they never thought Putin would actually cross into this. Or if they did, they thought that he would be happy with the Donbas – they never thought that it would go as far as it has. Do you think negotiation is something that's even possible, given what's happened?
Tulsi: It would have been a lot easier a month ago—but it will be a lot harder a month from now. It is always possible for the United States, NATO, Russia, and Ukraine to come to an agreement which will enhance peace and security, but it will all depend on how ready each of these parties are to give up whatever aims or goals they may have that will continue to fuel conflict. For example, Russian leaders will need to give up their goal of having a government in Ukraine that is nothing more than a puppet state. Ukrainian leaders will have to give up their idea of becoming a member of NATO. The United States and NATO will have to give up their goal of having Ukraine be an American client state and military outpost on Russia’s border. It all comes down to each of the parties being realistic. They need to deal with the world as it is, not the way they wish it to be. I think it’s becoming pretty obvious to Putin and Zelensky that they’re going to have to face reality. The difficulty the Russian military has had in Ukraine must certainly have woken Putin from whatever dream he might have had thinking he would be able to expand into other countries and create a greater Russia.
Ben: Yeah, it's a lot less scary to think of Russian tanks in Poland when you see them stuck in the mud in Ukraine.
Tulsi: We are at a greater risk of nuclear war now than ever before in history – even greater than during the Cuban missile crisis. We face a much more complex environment, with most of the safeguards that were in place during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, now gone. Culturally, the threat of nuclear war was a terrifying daily reality that those in the Cold War era dealt with every day. But now, most people in our society have no concept of the destruction a nuclear war would cause, even though the threat of nuclear war is greater now than during the Soviet Cold War. Political leaders, both in the United States and Russia, casually talk about the possibility of there being a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia.
The stakes couldn’t be greater. We need to de-escalate this crisis and end this conflict. If it continues, ultimately it will lead to destruction and suffering of unseen proportions - not only for the Ukrainian people, but for the American people and the world.