It was hardly out of character for Donald Trump. But in the pantheon of unforced errors, criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu and praising Hezbollah days after the worst terror attack in the nation’s 75-year history would seem to rank right up there.
By Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott had all lit into Trump for calling Hezbollah “very smart” and saying the Israeli prime minister “let us down.” The White House called Trump’s comments “dangerous and unhinged.”
If Trump’s many past controversial statements are any indication, he may ultimately pay little price for it. Trump has criticized Netanyahu before.
But never days after such a flagrant attack on Israel. And in a primary where lower-polling rivals have been mostly cautious in their criticisms of the frontrunner, Trump’s remarks on Wednesday offered, at a minimum, an opening.
“This is no time for any former president or any other American leader to be sending any message other than America stands with Israel,” Pence said on a New Hampshire radio station on Thursday morning.
“Hezbollah aren’t smart, they’re evil,” Pence said on News Radio 610 ahead of a two-day campaign swing in New Hampshire. “But the former president also said when Russia invaded Ukraine in a similar, unprovoked, unconscionable invasion a year-and-a-half ago, he said Vladimir Putin was a genius.”
Trump’s remarks were in line with his past criticisms of Netanyahu. His praise for Hezbollah recalled his one-time description of Kim Jong Un as a “very talented man” and ISIS leaders as “very smart.”
Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said Thursday that Trump “was clearly pointing out how incompetent Biden and his administration were by telegraphing to the terrorists an area that is susceptible to an attack.”
“Smart does not equal good,” he said. “It just proves Biden is stupid.”
But the timing of Trump’s Wednesday night address — in his first extended remarks on Israel, and with the world still shaken by the attack — came as a jolt to the campaign.
The same night Trump spoke in Florida, DeSantis posted on X that “it is absurd that anyone, much less someone running for President, would choose now to attack our friend and ally, Israel.” Then, campaigning in New Hampshire on Thursday, he tore into Trump again.
“Now is not the time to be doing like what Donald Trump did by attacking Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, attacking Israel’s defense minister, saying somehow that Hezbollah were very smart,” DeSantis said. “We need to all be on the same page. Now is not the time to air personal grievances about an Israeli prime minister. Now is the time to support their right to defend themselves to the hilt.”
Speaking to reporters at a campaign stop in Newton, Iowa, Scott remarked that Trump must “disagree” with Psalm 122:6, which instructs people of faith to pray for peace in Israel.
“I don’t know where he’s coming from,” Scott said of Trump. “He’s just wrong.”
At a town hall in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley said, “I don’t want to hear how great Hezbollah is. I don’t want to see him congratulate the communist party anymore. I don’t want to see him hitting Netanyahu.”
Christie, Trump’s fiercest critic in the GOP presidential field, posted a video clip of Trump’s remarks on X, writing that “all decent Americans understand” that the country should be supporting Israel.
“But not Donald Trump. What does he do?” Christie wrote. “He praises the murderers and attacks Israel over petty personal grievances.”
And the pile-on didn’t stop there. While filing to run in the presidential primary in New Hampshire, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum also condemned Trump’s comments.
“Now is not the time, 24 hours in,” Burgum said at the statehouse in Concord, when asked about Trump’s criticism of Netanyahu, “when we’ve got Americans who have been taken hostage, Americans who have been killed.”
He noted that America itself had experienced “intelligence failures” on 9/11 and with Pearl Harbor, and dismissed Trump as a “critic” on the sidelines.
Asked about Trump’s “smart” comment on Hezbollah, Burgum said he would call them “barbaric” and “inhumane.”
“But I don’t think I would characterize them in any positive fashion,” he continued. “Not when you see this incredible ability to conduct atrocities that most of us would find unthinkable and unimaginable.”
Of the presidential contenders, only Vivek Ramaswamy defended Trump.
“It’s laughable they’re going after Trump for ‘saying the wrong thing’ when he actually *did* more for U.S.-Israel relations than any other U.S. President in modern history,” Ramaswamy said in a statement to POLITICO.
“Every single Republican presidential candidate is clearly pro-Israel. The real divide is between those of us who are clearly pro-America & there are really only two America-First candidates in this race.”
At the White House, deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said, “We don’t comment on 2024.”
But on Trump, he said, “Statements like this are dangerous and unhinged. It’s completely lost on us why any American would ever praise an Iran-backed terrorist organization as ‘smart.’ Or have any objection to the United States warning terrorists not to attack Israel. Especially now as Israel is fighting back against one of the worst acts of mass murder in the country’s history. This is a time for all of us to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel against ‘unadulterated evil.’ That’s what the President is doing as commander in chief.”
Sally Goldenberg and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.
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