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Armed Services experience is ‘in’ for 2020 presidential

Gillibrand, Warren and Gabbard will play up their national security cred as they vie to be commander in chief

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard greets veteran Celestino Almeda in 2017. The Hawaii congresswoman is one of three sitting Armed Services members eyeing the presidency. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard greets veteran Celestino Almeda in 2017. The Hawaii congresswoman is one of three sitting Armed Services members eyeing the presidency. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Three sitting members of Congress who have announced plans to seek the presidency in 2020 have a few things in common: they’re all Democrats, they’re all women, and they all sit on their respective chamber’s Armed Services committee.

To date, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have formed committees to explore a challenge to President Donald Trump in 2020, while Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has officially launched her presidential campaign.

Others in Congress who do not sit on either the House or Senate Armed Services panels will likely enter the race as well. But Gabbard, Gillibrand and Warren all have their Armed Services seats to lend them national security cred as they vie to be the next commander in chief.

They certainly wouldn’t be the first nominees in recent memory to come from the dais of the Armed Services committee. Former Sen. John McCain, who died in August, was a vocal Senate Armed Services member (and later went on to serve as its chairman) when he was the GOP nominee in 2008. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, also served on the committee during her time representing New York in the Senate.

Presidential contenders with Armed Services chops “have legitimate reasons for traveling abroad, especially to war zones. They meet — and can later report on things said to or by — senior commanders and many foreign officials,” said Charles Stevenson, a Johns Hopkins professor who spent 22 years as a Senate staffer on defense and foreign policy. “Those without military service can become more familiar with military people and policies, which is good insurance against damaging ignorance or insensitive comments.”

Gillibrand, who announced her presidential exploratory committee on Tuesday night, has most notably used her Armed Services perch to combat sexual assaults in the military. The top Democrat on the Personnel subcommittee, she has pushed for a sweeping change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would take the decision to prosecute sexual assaults and most other major crimes out of the chain of command and put it in the hands of trained lawyers.

Backers hailed it as professionalizing the military’s justice system, and more than half the Senate indicated its support. But it was opposed by military leaders and some hawkish members of her own party, and it never cleared the procedural hurdles to get an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

Congress has passed dozens of other provisions over the last several years aimed at combating sexual assault within the military’s ranks. But while her proposal was not successful, Gillibrand nonetheless emerged as the national spokeswoman on the issue.

Gillibrand has also taken on the Trump administration’s ban on transgender troops, introducing legislation in 2017 that would allow transgender people currently serving to remain in the military. McCain endorsed the legislation, but Congress hasn’t taken action on the matter as it is still being handled in the courts.

Warren joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2017, a move that many in Washington speculated was intended to round out her domestic affairs-heavy resume as she prepared for a long-expected presidential bid.

Warren has used her seat on the committee to argue that climate change is a national security threat — a position that puts her squarely at odds with Trump. And she has repeatedly focused on Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy.

“Putin and his online trolls are not going away, and we are facing a choice,” she said during a March 8 hearing. “We can sit on our hands and let Russia interfere in our elections, or we can be proactive and work with our allies to deter Russia and Russia’s information warfare.”

Like Trump, however, Warren wants the United States to reconsider America’s military commitments abroad, including deployments to Afghanistan and Syria, which she has called “endless wars.”

“It is time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, starting right now,” she said during a Nov. 29 foreign policy speech.

As a House member, Gabbard does not have the same spotlight as senators when it comes to amplifying her views on national security and foreign policy. Gabbard is a major in the Hawaii National Guard and served two tours in Iraq, distinguishing her from the rest of the Democratic field so far.

Gabbard is also a lightning rod for controversy within her own party on national security and foreign policy matters. In January 2017, she met face-to-face with Bashar Assad and has questioned whether the Syrian dictator has used chemical weapons on his own people.

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