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The ex-Democrat catching Trump's and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s eyes

Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has gone from running for president as a Democrat in 2020 to interest in the open VP slots for Trump and Kennedy in 2024.
Tulsi Gabbard, former US Representative from Hawaii, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 22, 2024.
Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 22.Kent Nishimura / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Tulsi Gabbard wanted to be president. Now she wants to be vice president. And while that’s hardly unusual, the paths — plural — she’s considering to get there are. 

Neither involve the Democratic Party, which Gabbard used to represent until she left it in 2022. The four-term former member of Congress from Hawaii is now getting consideration for both former President Donald Trump’s and independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s tickets, two sources familiar with the candidates’ deliberations told NBC News.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for the onetime progressive rising star, who within the span of eight years has gone from supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign to running for the Democratic presidential nomination herself in 2020, eventually endorsing President Joe Biden, before then gravitating to the right and becoming a regular conservative media personality and conference speaker. 

More so, it’s exceedingly rare for a politician to attract interest from more than one presidential ticket or party. (Ahead of the 1952 election, Democrats and Republicans led dueling efforts to draft another politically ambiguous veteran, Dwight Eisenhower, the former supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II, for the presidential race.)

But Gabbard’s 2024 possibilities are not fully in her control, nor are they both equally likely. As one source said, Gabbard would be more likely to seriously consider running as Kennedy’s vice presidential nominee had she not been swept up by the possibility of serving with Trump. This person said Gabbard “was enticed” by the chance of serving on Kennedy’s ticket but is now focused on the possibility that Trump will select her. 

“My understanding is that Tulsi is convinced that Trump is going to pick her,” this person said. “Had that not been the case, she probably would have gone with Kennedy.”

Trump allies and insiders say that while she may be getting a look from the former president, she’s an unlikely choice at best, though she could still land another role in the campaign or in a potential future administration. Some on the right have floated her for defense secretary or another national security post. She was one of the only Democrats who met with Trump during his transition in 2016, as he was interviewing people for posts in his administration.

“I think most people on team Trump view her as someone who ultimately won’t be picked as VP, but could end up with a different role when all is said and done,” a Trump-world adviser said.

While Gabbard does have some positives that would appeal to Trump on a prospective ticket — including having taken positions on both sides of the abortion rights battle and generated a viral debate moment against then-Sen. Kamala Harris — a person familiar with Trump’s private discussions said a major strike against her is that she’s previously sought the presidency herself.

That person said “there’s a very specific calculus that’s going into” the vice presidential selection process, noting Trump doesn’t want to anoint someone with their own presidential ambitions who might be seen as his successor.

On the possibility Gabbard is picked, this person said: “Everyone is trying to get their PR right now.”

‘Quite a leap’

Both Trump and Kennedy have made public their interest in Gabbard, 42, within the past month. And it comes as Gabbard raises her own profile. She has a brand-new book — subtitle: “Leave the Democrat Party Behind” — with Kennedy’s book publisher, who is also the chairman of the main super PAC supporting him. And she created a new leadership PAC, registered using a GOP treasurer and bank. 

A person familiar with the event told NBC News that Kennedy met with Gabbard while campaigning in Hawaii in mid-January, and she has been on the public list of names the campaign has put forward of possible running mates.

Meanwhile, during a Fox News town hall in South Carolina in late February, host Laura Ingraham rattled off a list of possible VP picks that included Gabbard. “All of those people are good — they’re all solid,” Trump said

Mark Longabaugh, a former top Sanders strategist who worked with Gabbard when she was a leading surrogate for his 2016 presidential campaign — Sanders gave her the honor of being the one to formally nominate him at the Democratic National Convention — said Gabbard’s political evolution is “quite a leap.”

He believes she’d be a better fit ideologically for Kennedy than for Trump, though he noted both Gabbard and Trump have taken contradictory positions on multiple issues over their careers. 

“Maybe she is a perfect match for Trump,” he said. “Trump has no convictions. So it’d be the ‘no convictions ticket.’”

The former congresswoman has expressed in multiple interviews that she would be interested in serving as Trump’s vice president, including on Donald Trump Jr.’s podcast.

“I would be open to that,” she told Fox News host Jesse Watters when asked this month about serving as Trump’s running mate.

Gabbard has fielded the question in recent interviews with conservative media personalities, but responding to a request for comment from NBC News, a Gabbard spokesperson described questions about her interest in serving as a running mate for either Trump or Kennedy as “based on speculation, gossip and hypotheticals.”

“Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard believes these questions to be premature,” said Erika Tsuji, who was also the communications director for Gabbard’s 2020 campaign. “She’d be happy to take a rain check if things move from speculation into reality.”

Trump’s campaign declined to comment. Kennedy’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Gabbard has also kept a toe in Libertarian politics, appearing at New Hampshire Liberty Forum over the weekend. The party’s national chairwoman, Angela McArdle, said there have been no talks about her running for president or vice president via that party.

“We hope to maintain a good relationship with her, though,” McArdle added.

Gabbard’s evolution 

Gabbard fit in well with the Democratic Party’s anti-war left flank and was enough of a team player with its mainstream to be called a “role model” by party elders and earn a position as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. She resigned that position in 2016 to endorse Sanders and his claims that the DNC had rigged the primary against him.

But since her 2020 Democratic presidential run, Gabbard has veered. She now calls herself a political independent but otherwise “sounds more and more like a Trump supporter,” as Boston conservative radio host Jeff Kuhner put it — approvingly — in an interview with Gabbard last week.

Now, Gabbard gives speeches at Mar-a-Lago and the Conservative Political Action Conference and has guest hosted for Tucker Carlson. She’s a regular on conservative and anti-establishment media, from the Fox News prime-time lineup to Joe Rogan’s podcast, and she has hosted her own podcast, with episode titles like “‘Woke’ Gender Lies, Child Abuse, and Mutilation” and “2nd Amendment: Why our right ‘shall not be infringed.’”

And Gabbard has spoken with Trump and top advisers on foreign and military affairs, The Washington Post reported in February. She’s long been known as an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, military intervention overseas and aid to Ukraine. Years ago, her opposition to U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war that saw her meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump has even publicly defended her from critics in her former party: “She’s not a Russian agent,” he said in 2019.

Still, Gabbard — who has been criticized for ties to Hindu nationalists and using allegedly Islamophobic rhetoric — supports Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip and opposes a cease-fire, saying last month, “You cannot achieve peace without the defeat of Hamas.”

Gabbard is so recently removed from the Democratic Party that she was still on Harris’ Christmas card mailing list last year, she said in a recent interview. But she now says her old party is “under the control of this elite cabal of woke warmongers” and “is unrecognizable” from the one she knew.

“We cannot allow Joe Biden to be re-elected. Period,” she told Kuhner. “Otherwise, I am sincerely and deeply concerned, if the Biden-Harris administration or any of the other Democrats are allowed to remain in power, we will not be able to get these freedoms back.”

She has downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, telling Carlson it had been “politicized” and “sensationalized” by the media and Democrats to “achieve their own political interests.”

Matt Kibbe, a libertarian activist and president of Free the People, said Gabbard’s political evolution is authentic and shows she’s a political disrupter.

“Some of the most interesting people in politics today are people who come from the left who have been sort of shocked” by fights over disinformation and censorship online as well as Covid lockdowns, he added.

While she won’t say if she plans to vote for Trump, she clearly thinks he would be preferable to Biden. Often pressed on her wholesale political conversion, Gabbard’s explanation is almost always the same: The Democrats lost their way and overreached, which led her to realize she was on the wrong team. 

Her father, Mike Gabbard, is a longtime state senator in Hawaii who switched parties himself, moving from the GOP to the Democratic side of the aisle, and rose to prominence for his opposition to same-sex marriage. She has made big shifts before: The younger Gabbard supported his efforts closely before apologizing for her anti-gay advocacy in 2012 and again amid her presidential campaign.

Her shift has concerned some new ideological allies, and her critics on the right have been resurfacing old comments, including when she said it would be a “disaster” for Trump and Republicans to control Washington; called Trump, who was president at the time, “Saudi Arabia’s b----”; and touted her 100% rating on abortion rights from Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

But there’s a reason Gabbard is seen as a star by various people across the political spectrum, Longabaugh said.

“She’s articulate, she’s a good public speaker, she showed at that moment in that [Democratic presidential] debate that she could do a takedown — whether she made a good case for herself is another matter,” Longabaugh said. “Takedowns are kind of Trump’s brand. So if he was just looking for an aggressive negative campaigner, I suppose she could fill that bill.”