On Wednesday, during the Democratic debate in Detroit, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) slammed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) over her record as attorney general in California.
Following the debate, Harris told CNN's Anderson Cooper that Gabbard was an "apologist" for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad:
This coming from someone who has been an apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches. She who has embraced and been an apologist for him in a way that she refuses to call him a war criminal. I can only take what she says and her opinion so seriously. So, you know, I'm prepared to move on.
In a subsequent interview, Cooper asked Gabbard for her response to Harris' criticism, and the following exchange took place:
COOPER: The only thing really [Kamala Harris] said about you ... is that you are essentially an apologist for Bashar al-Assad; that you would never criticize him as a dictator or murderer.
GABBARD: I think it's unfortunate and a disservice to voters in this country that she resorts to cheap smears rather than actually addressing her record...
COOPER: If voters are wondering, what is your take on Bashar al-Assad, what do you say?
GABBARD: My take is one of a soldier, where I've seen the cost of war firsthand in Iraq serving in a medical unit every single day confronted with that high human cost of war. So, I will never apologize for doing all that I can to prevent more of my brothers and sisters from being sent into harm's way to fight counterproductive regime-change wars that make our country less safe, that take more lives, and that cost taxpayers trillions more dollars. So, if that means meeting with a dictator or meeting with an adversary, absolutely I would do it. This is about the national security of our country.
COOPER: I understand that position. Do you consider him a torturer or a murderer?
GABBARD: That’s not what this is about. I don't defend or apologize or have anything to do with what he has done to –
COOPER: But if you're President of the United States, it's fine if you want to meet with somebody, but there's traditionally [the] role of the President the United States calling out human rights abuses overseas. Bashar al-Assad is head of a regime which has disappeared many people ... [inaudible].
GABBARD: Here's the way that I look at it, and the kind of leadership, the example of leadership that I follow is one where Kennedy met with and worked with Khrushchev to forge a deal that would keep the American people safe; where obviously Reagan met with Gorbachev; Roosevelt met with Stalin, worked with Stalin, you know, Nixon met with Mao. These are the kinds of leaders who think about things that are very practical [on a] real level about how to keep our country and the American people safe.
COOPER: But Stalin murdered 20 million people.
GABBARD: That's my point exactly. Yet Roosevelt not only met him, but he allied with him to bring about an end to that war.
COOPER: But I'm sure, you know, Roosevelt would have acknowledged that Stalin murdered millions of people. You don't want to –
GABBARD: I don't dispute that. Again, my focus is –
COOPER: But you won't say anything about that, about [Bashar al-Assad].
GABBARD: I have been very outspoken about this before. These are things that are being used as detractions away from the central issue, which is, we are still waging a regime-change war in Syria today; we still have troops in Syria today; troops who are dying. That's my focus. That's why I'm running for president; to bring about this sea change in our foreign policy.
COOOER: I understand ... I understand the not wanting to get involved militarily, and certainly as a veteran, you have more of a right than anybody to talk about that, and have an opinion about it. Just on a factual basis, Bashar al-Assad is a murderer and a torturer. Do you not agree with that?
GABBARD: I don't dispute that.
In 2017, Rep. Gabbard met with Bashar al-Assad during a "fact-finding" trip. Later speaking with CNN's Jake Tapper about the meeting, she stated:
Initially I hadn’t planned on meeting him. When the opportunity arose to meet with him, I did so, because I felt it’s important that if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people, about their suffering, then we’ve got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there is a possibility that we could achieve peace. And that’s exactly what we talked about.
In February, Gabbard indeed noted that Assad is a "brutal dictator." Appearing on CNN, she stated:
There are brutal dictators in the world. ... Assad of Syria is one of them. That does not mean the United States should be waging regime-change wars around the world.
Rep. Gabbard is known as one of the most ardent opponents of regime-change wars among the 2020 Democratic candidates.