Hillary Clinton says Republicans ‘grooming’ a 2020 candidate for third-party run

PHOTO: Hillary Clinton speaks during an event in New York on April 6, 2017.PlayMary Altaffer/AP, FILE
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Correction: The original story has been corrected to reflect that Clinton actually said Republicans were grooming a 2020 candidate for a third-party run. The earlier version had her saying Russians were grooming a 2020 candidate. Clinton had said in the same answer, “She’s a favorite of the Russians…” and a number of news organizations had interpreted her ‘grooming’ comment as referring to Russians.

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Former Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, without naming names -- and just ahead of the debate -- said that a female 2020 candidate is a "favorite of the Russians" and is being "groomed' by Republicans for a third-party run.

ABC News and other outlets originally reported that Clinton had said the Russians were “grooming” her as a third-party candidate.

"They're also going to do third-party again,” Clinton said, in response to a question about GOP strategy.

"And I'm not making any predictions, but I think they've got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She's the favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far..." Clinton told David Plouffe on "Campaign HQ", a podcast run by the 2008 Obama campaign manager.

Clinton does not mention Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard by name and there are five Democratic women running for president this cycle: Gabbard, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, California Sen. Kamala Harria and author Marianne Williamson. However, the comment appeared to be aimed at Gabbard.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard speaks during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Westerville, Ohio on Oct. 15, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images, FILE
Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard speaks during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Westerville, Ohio on Oct. 15, 2019.

The exchange came as a part of a conversation centered on possible Republican paths to victory in 2020. Clinton suggested that President Donald Trump's campaign would try to deflect votes from his opponent and direct them toward a third-party candidate.

"It's going to be the same as 2016. 'Don't vote for the other guy. You don't like me? Don't vote for the other guy, because the other guy is going to do x,y,z, the other guy did such terrible things," Clinton also said of what she expects the GOP's two-pronged approach would be in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Gabbard fired back on Twitter the same day on Oct. 18, the same day Clinton’s comments gained wider attention in the media.

Gabbard fired back on Twitter on that Friday afternoon.

The Hawaiian lawmaker addressed criticism that her campaign is being aided by Russian propaganda efforts-- a narrative that has appeared recently in such places as the New York Times. The news outlet reported last week that some Democrats worry about Russian bot influence due to Gabbard's apparent popularity on and mentions in Russian news media and on such places as 4chan, an online message board popular with right-wing groups.

Clinton's spokesman Nick Merrill told CNN in response to a question about whether the former secretary of state was referring to Gabbard: "If the nesting doll fits."

"This is not some outlandish claim. This is reality," Merrill told CNN. "If the Russian propaganda machine, both their state media and their bot and troll operations, is backing a candidate aligned with their interests, that is just a reality, it is not speculation."

Later the same night, Merrill clarified Clinton's comments on Twitter, "Folks, listen to the podcast. She doesn't say the Russians are grooming anyone. It was a question about Republicans." -https://twitter.com/NickMerrill/status/1185348133779394560?s=20--- will embed

Clinton's team initially did not responded to a request from ABC News for comment but Thursday did confirm that Clinton had been referring to Republicans, not Russians. .

ABC News has also reached out to Gabbard's campaign for a response.

Gabbard addressed speculation about being boosted by Russia on ABC's "This Week" in May, after being asked about an article published in The Daily Beast titled "Tulsi Gabbard's Campaign Is Being Boosted by Putin Apologists."

The Daily Beast article said that Gabbard's campaign was being "underwritten by some of the nation's leading Russophiles," and highlighted donations from supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The piece says that those donors' views are likely to align more closely with Gabbard's on subjects like Syria. As a member of Congress, she has met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and criticized a U.S. strike against the Syrian government, receiving backlash from other Democrats in Congress.

"You know, it's unfortunate that you're citing that article, George, because it's a whole lot of fake news," Gabbard said. "What I am focused on is what is in the best interest of the American people. What is in the best interest of our national security. Keeping the American people safe."

Gabbard has previously said on multiple occasions that she will not run as a third-party candidate should she fail to net the Democratic presidential nomination.

Last week, Gabbard threatened to boycott the fourth Democratic debate, hosted by CNN and the New York times, accusing them of "rigging" the 2020 election.

"I am seriously considering boycotting October 15 debate to bring attention to DNC/corporate media's effort to rig 2020 primary," she tweeted.

Last Saturday, Gabbard tweeted, "As if to prove my point, NYT just published a "greatest hits" smear piece. All your favorite hits in one article! These are the folks who will be acting as the "neutral" questioners/ moderators of Tuesday's debate lol"

Gabbard ended up joining the other candidates on the stage Tuesday night.

Clinton also said on the podcast interview with Plouffe that Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party presidential nominee, was a "Russian asset."

"And that's assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not, 'cause she's also a Russian asset," Clinton said during the podcast interview referring to Stein's third party status. " I mean, totally. They know they can't win without a third-party candidate, and so I don't know who it's going to be, but I will guarantee they'll have a vigorous third-party challenge in the key states that they most need it."

Stein, in a response to ABC News on Friday evening, said: "Instead of addressing the crises working people face, the DNC is painting progressives as the enemy. It's as if they're trying to lose to Trump again...In light of the latest slanderous allegations from Hillary Clinton, I challenge her to a debate. It's past time to give the American people the real debate they deserved in 2016, but were denied by the phony DNC/RNC-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates."

Some of Gabbard's Democratic competitors weighed in on Twitter, too. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker tweeted a GIF in response to Gabbard.