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.
President Donald Trump defended Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Monday afternoon, after Hillary Clinton said in a podcast interview last week -- without naming names -- that a female 2020 candidate is a "favorite of the Russians" and that she was being "groomed" for a third-party run by Republicans.
ABC News and other outlets originally reported that Clinton had said the Russians were “grooming” her as a third-party candidate.
"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," Clinton said, in response to a question about GOP strategy from David Plouffe on "Campaign HQ," a podcast run by the 2008 Obama campaign manager.
Clinton also called the candidate "the favorite of the Russians."
Clinton does not mention the congresswoman from Hawaii by name and there are five Democratic women running for president this cycle: Gabbard, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and author Marianne Williamson. However, the comment appeared to be aimed at Gabbard.
But Gabbard herself seemed to think it was her based on her responses on Twitter, "It's now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don't hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly," she tweeted at Clinton.
During a Cabinet meeting on Monday, Trump said of Gabbard, "She's not a Russian agent."
"These people are sick. There's something wrong with them," Trump said on Monday afternoon. "She's accusing everyone of being a Russian agent."
Gabbard recently 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 last week 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 tweeted, "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 also said on the podcast interview with Plouffe that Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party presidential nominee, was a "Russian asset."
"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," Clinton said.
Stein issued a statement to ABC News on that Friday night, calling on Clinton to debate her directly.
"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."
Trump also defended Gabbard on Twitter Saturday and took a dig at his 2016 presidential opponent.
"So now Crooked Hillary is at it again! She is calling Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard 'a Russian favorite,' and Jill Stein 'a Russian asset,'" he tweeted. "As you may have heard, I was called a big Russia lover also (actually, I do like Russian people. I like all people!). Hillary's gone Crazy!"
Clinton's team has not responded to a request from ABC News for comment.
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. Over the weekend, Gabbard dodged questions from reporters on Clinton's comments, saying she would rather stick to the issues at hand and can't control her mentions in Russian media.
"I don't control them. I don't control what anyone else says or does. All I can do is focus on the message that I am bringing to this campaign -- the message that I am delivering to voters in this country," Gabbard told reporters in Iowa on Sunday. "What I wish is that reporters like you and the media would actually focus on what I'm saying."
She did, however, use Clinton's comments as a call to action on Twitter Sunday afternoon, asking people to donate to her campaign in order to "take back the Democratic party from corrupt elite."
In May, Gabbard addressed speculation about being boosted by Russia on ABC's "This Week," 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 those whom the publication described as 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 told ABC News' Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on "This Week." "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 recently taken to calling out the DNC and "corporate media" for what she says are attempts to rig the 2020 primary. She threatened to boycott last week's debate to bring attention to her complaint, but ended up joining her primary competitors on the stage in Ohio.