World / Politics

U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard, who met Syrian dictator, says she will run for president

AFP-JIJI, AP

Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran who met dictator Bashar Assad in Syria during that country’s devastating civil war, said Friday that she is launching a U.S. presidential bid.

“I have decided to run and will be making a formal announcement within the next week,” Gabbard told CNN.

If elected, the 37-year-old lawmaker would be the youngest president in U.S. history. She is the first Hindu member of Congress and its first Samoan American.

“There are a lot of reasons for me to make this decision. There are a lot of challenges that are facing the American people that I’m concerned about and that I want to help solve,” she said, citing health care access and climate change among them.

Gabbard sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where she is able to influence U.S. foreign policy.

“There is one main issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of war and peace,” Gabbard added. “I look forward to being able to get into this and to talk about it in depth when we make our announcement.”

Gabbard was born in American Samoa and was raised in Hawaii, where she is known to surf.

The previous Democratic president, Barack Obama, was also raised in Hawaii, and is the only president who was born in the island state.

Gabbard’s announcement comes ahead of what is expected to be a wave of high-profile candidates throwing their hats in the ring.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has formed an exploratory committee for a presidential bid, and last week took a high-profile trip to the early voting state of Iowa.

Former vice president Joe Biden and progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Gabbard supported over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, are also mulling entering the race.

Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio who served in Barack Obama’s Cabinet as housing secretary, says he will announce his 2020 plans on Saturday.

Gabbard drew heavy criticism when she met secretly with Assad in Damascus in 2017 during a fact-finding mission that also took her to the decimated city of Aleppo. She also met with refugees and Syrian opposition leaders.

“Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it,” Gabbard said when her trip became public.

“I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering.”

Gabbard was deployed to Iraq in 2005, and she maintains her role as a member of the Hawaii National Guard.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is also moving aggressively toward an expected presidential bid, filling out key staff positions, traveling to key states and nearing a choice on the location for a campaign headquarters, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.

The New York Democrat is expected to make her debut in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa next weekend. Among her stops, Gillibrand plans to headline a Woodbury County Democrats Truman Club gathering at a private home in Sioux City on the evening of Jan. 18. Although the event is expected to be an intimate gathering of only a couple dozen donors and influential activists, it will be hard to avoid the comparison of a recent event Warren held in Sioux City, when she packed 400 into a refurbished downtown theater.

Gillibrand is considering a February announcement, according to one person familiar with the discussions, who cautioned that the partial government shutdown could have an impact on the timing.

The senator is filling out important campaign staff positions, including recruiting Meredith Kelly, the former spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to head her communications efforts, according to the person. Alexandria Phillips, Gillibrand’s congressional press secretary and a former Hillary Clinton aide, and Jess Fassler, who served as Gillibrand’s Senate chief of staff, will also join the campaign, the person said.

Dan McNally, a veteran Democratic operative who managed Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s campaign in 2016, will also come on board.

Gillibrand’s team is eyeing Troy, New York, a small upstate city on the Hudson River, as a headquarters, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.

All of the people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The selection of Troy, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Manhattan, could allow Gillibrand to highlight her roots in upstate New York, where she was born and later represented in Congress before being appointed to the Senate. Gillibrand’s representatives didn’t comment Thursday on her choice of headquarters.

Others weighing bids include California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Sanders.

Other Democrats, including billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, have declined to run in 2020.

Gillibrand easily won re-election to the Senate in 2018 with more than $10.6 million in campaign money left over that she could funnel toward a presidential bid. In recent weeks, she has worked to expand her fundraising network and to improve her standing among critical voting blocs, including African-American voters.