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Gabbard fields questions about NKorea, Syria

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard warned of the threat from North Korea and defended her stance on the conflict in Syria during a packed town hall meeting in Hilo.

Roughly 500 people attended the meeting Tuesday evening at Waiakea High School, with topics focusing on foreign policy issues and President Donald Trump’s administration.

Gabbard started by discussing missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, saying the threat to Hawaii has been overlooked in Washington, D.C. She said she is pushing for Hawaii to have its own missile defense system and was urging officials to become better prepared.

“This is something we can’t afford to take lightly,” said Gabbard, a Democrat who represents rural Oahu and the Neighbor Islands.

The near-capacity crowd was friendly territory for Gabbard who received applause for supporting universal health care, environmental issues and a noninterventionist foreign policy.

But the congresswoman also was asked pointed questions about her meeting with Trump after the election and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Gabbard traveled earlier this year to Syria where she met with Assad, who is accused of war crimes during the country’s devastating six-year civil war.

“I met with Assad to try to further the cause of understanding and peace,” she said, after being asked why she met with him and what they discussed.

“And when it comes down to it, we cannot further the cause of peace and understanding without meeting with people we disagree with.”

Gabbard said she met with Trump, a Republican, to urge him not to increase the United States’ involvement in the conflict and avoid “regime change wars.” She criticized Trump’s missile strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the use of chemical weapons earlier this month, describing it as illegal since it occurred without congressional approval.

The chemical attack on a rebel-controlled area killed dozens, including children. A separate chemical attack killed more than 1,000 in 2013, according to The New York Times.

“Even with the best intentions, our actions have so often — in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria — have resulted in more human suffering, not less,” she said, regarding intervention.

Gabbard related the issue to tensions with North Korea. She said the reclusive regime seeks nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

“North Korea is watching this saying, ‘OK, why should we trust anything’ when our country has this track record of regime change,” Gabbard said. “So, again, our policies have consequences.”

Gabbard said she supports fighting terrorist groups in Syria but not trying to topple the regime, saying that would empower extremists.

She has faced criticism from other members of Congress, national Democratic Party leaders and political columnists for meeting with Assad and later suggesting he might not have been behind this month’s chemical weapons attack.

In addition to use of chemical weapons, human rights groups say the Syrian regime targets civilians with conventional weapons and uses torture.

Gabbard told the Tribune-Herald after the town hall meeting that alleged war crimes were raised during her meeting with Assad, which she said focused on ways to end the conflict. She said Assad denied targeting civilians.

Asked if she thinks that’s the case, Gabbard said: “It doesn’t matter what I think. What matters are the facts on the ground.” She said she supports investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria and prosecutions in the international criminal court.

The crowd appeared largely supportive of her stance.

“I think you did the right thing” in Syria, Danny Lee told her during the meeting. “I absolutely agree with you 100 percent on that.”

Gabbard was asked during the meeting about support she received from David Duke and other white nationalists for her position on Syria. Gabbard rejected Duke’s endorsement.

“I don’t make my decisions based on who agrees with me or who likes me,” she said, to applause.

“… It’s just a ridiculous way to look at things and it undermines the seriousness of the issues that we are facing.”

Asked about the prospect of impeaching Trump, Gabbard said she was studying the issue, but noted that would mean replacing him with Vice President Mike Pence.

“On the issue of impeachment, I am doing my homework; I am studying more of the impeachment process,” she said. “I understand the calls for impeachment, and what I’m being cautious about, is that if President Trump is impeached, the problems don’t go away.”

Gabbard said she is concerned about deep cuts being proposed to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’re going to be fighting this fight in Congress,” she said. “… We need to make sure our resources are protected here.”

On health care, Gabbard said she was putting her signature on a Medicare-for-all bill.

“Our health care system is broken,” she said. “Our health care system needs real systemic change.”

Gabbard slammed the Republicans’ health care proposal, which was pulled from the House floor.

“It’s a terrible bill that undermines health care for our community, rather than improving health care for our community,” Gabbard said.

She said the Affordable Care Act made progress, but it included compromises with drug companies.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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