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Tulsi Takes MAGA Makeover to New Level With Mar-a-Lago Event

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

As the center of the MAGA universe, Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club constantly plays host to all manner of people seeking the glow of proximity to the former president and his power structure.

But an unexpected presence is set to soon bask in that glow: Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic presidential contender turned right-wing hero.

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On March 7, Gabbard is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a Mar-a-Lago fundraising dinner for the 917 Society—a nonprofit best known for distributing pocket-sized copies of the Constitution—according to an invitation obtained by The Daily Beast. Tickets for the soiree range in cost from $1,250 to $25,000.

Whether it was intentional or not, the group’s choice of Gabbard to keynote the event at Trump’s private club comes at a conspicuous moment for the ex-Democratic lawmaker, who is attracting attention as a possible campaign ally, or even running mate, for Trump in 2024.

During a Fox News town hall on Tuesday night, host Laura Ingraham—who frequently brings Gabbard on her show—mentioned her alongside several other names when asking Trump about his vice presidential shortlist.

Even though Ingraham included Trump’s old rival Ron DeSantis, Trump nodded and appeared not to object to any of the names. The mere mention of Gabbard’s name also drew a burst of applause from Ingraham’s live audience.

Gabbard’s status as an event headliner at Mar-a-Lago has turned some heads in Trumpworld, even if the event is separate from the former president and his campaign.

“I don’t think there’s a downside to her being there,” one Trumpworld operative told The Daily Beast. “We’d love to have Tulsi’s support.”

An endorsement from Gabbard, whose embrace of America First-style foreign policy and “anti-woke” politics have defined her rightward drift, could boost a Trump campaign that is trying to build a broad coalition for 2024.

But Gabbard might have her own next moves in mind, too. A friend of Gabbard’s and a former senior campaign staffer from her 2020 campaign, each of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, indicated the current Army Reserve officer is open to a military or veterans’ affairs-focused role in a future Trump administration.

While Gabbard hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to endorse Trump, the friend said, she’s not ruling it out.

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Both sources cited a recent Washington Post report detailing Gabbard’s discussions with Trump on foreign policy as a significant inflection point in her path toward potentially joining forces with the former president.

But Trumpworld’s talks with Gabbard have remained informal and there have been no recent conversations, according to a source close to the Trump campaign.

The sources close to Gabbard, along with those in Trumpworld, said they don’t know if Gabbard and Trump will speak while she’s at Mar-a-Lago for the fundraiser. The event happens to be scheduled the same night as President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address—which Trump is considering responding to directly, according to NBC News.

Spokespeople for Gabbard, and the Trump campaign, did not respond to requests for comment about her upcoming Mar-a-Lago appearance. The 917 Society did not respond to a request for comment.

How Gabbard went from being a rising star in the Democratic Party to an outsider eager to show up at Mar-a-Lago—and consider joining forces with Trump—is reflective of her own unusual politics as well as how the former president changed the politics of the GOP.

Breaking from decades of GOP tradition, Trump’s isolationist bent and sympathy for dictators alienated many conventional Republicans—while shaping a generation of new ones—but left an opening for figures like Gabbard, who deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005 as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard.

While Gabbard held progressive positions on a number of issues while in Congress and during her failed 2020 presidential bid, her foreign policy stances, like her defenses of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and her skepticism of the NATO alliance, have left her outside the bipartisan mainstream.

What’s more, Gabbard—who began her career as a staunch opponent of LGBT rights—has adopted MAGA-era positioning on social issues. In officially departing the Democratic Party in 2022, she described her former party as “an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness.” Since then, she has started to sound like right-aligned commentators who fixate on progressive rhetoric on gender as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.

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There is still plenty of daylight between Trump and Gabbard that could prove problematic in a campaign setting, such as her support for abortion rights and her past endorsement of a $15 hourly minimum wage.

But out of all of her past positions and statements as an elected Democrat, there’s one which might be more of a problem than the rest: her criticism of Trump.

After Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in 2018—with the full authorization of Saudi leaders, according to U.S. intelligence—Gabbard had harsh words for the president who had cozied up to Riyadh.

“Hey @realdonaldtrump,” Gabbard tweeted, “being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First.’”

The former Gabbard senior staffer pointed to the tweet as a potential source of consternation in Trumpworld. The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment about Gabbard’s remarks.

“I’ll give Trump credit for having a long memory,” the former Gabbard staffer said. “I’m sure that’s something he’s aware of.”

When Gabbard burst onto the political scene in 2012, it seemed like a matter of time before she’d end up in a Democratic administration. Judging by the media coverage of her early days, Gabbard was on the path to stardom on the left.

“I’m going to tell you right now that her name is Tulsi Gabbard, because she is on the fast track to being very famous someday,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said on election night that year when she won her first congressional race in Hawaii.

Early on in Gabbard’s 2020 presidential campaign, it became apparent she had a connection with Trump voters. Both Gabbard’s friend and the former senior staffer recalled a growing presence of MAGA hats in the crowds at her events starting in 2019. “It’s more of the veteran culture,” the former Gabbard staffer said, citing the group as a key demographic for Trump.

“We’re fans of her being opposed to the endless wars. That’s the main thing,” the Trump operative said.

Ultimately, Gabbard’s 2020 campaign was a flop. She finished with no higher than 1.7 percent of the vote in any of the eight states she ran in except for New Hampshire—where she earned just over 3 percent of the vote, good for seventh place—before dropping out and endorsing Biden in mid-March. She didn’t seek re-election to the House in 2020, leaving her in the political wilderness by the time Biden was sworn in.

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But her falling out with the Democratic Party began in earnest in early 2016 when she resigned from her post at the Democratic National Committee to support Sanders. There were hints at her eventual evolution toward the end of her tenure in Congress, such as when she teamed up with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on a bill calling for the U.S. to drop all charges against NSA leaker Edward Snowden, followed by a similar one with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Without a current office, Gabbard’s circle remains small, consisting of “a close crew that goes back to Hawaii,” according to her former campaign staffer, which also includes her sister, Vrindavan Bellord, who has been serving in a high-paid security gig for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ).

If Gabbard has much of a political future left, it’s clearly in the Republican Party.

“She gravitates to where she feels she can do the most good for the most people and I think that’s going to be leading her decision-making process,” the former Gabbard campaign staffer said.

Although the Trumpworld sources said Gabbard has yet to break through in internal conversations as a serious contender for vice president, roles such as Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Veterans Affairs are on the table. They not only see her as “a value add,” according to the Trumpworld operative, but also an unpredictable force they’d prefer to have in their corner.

“I don’t know what the deal is with Tulsi,” the Trumpworld source said, “but I’d certainly rather have her on our side than on somebody else’s.”

Even if Gabbard is more likely to be in the mix for a Pentagon position or elsewhere in a future Trump administration, the source close to the Trump campaign didn’t rule her out as a dark horse for the VP pick.

The talks have been “nothing serious,” the Republican said.

“But,” they added, “everyone knows to expect the unexpected.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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