NASHUA, N.H. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has called Donald Trump’s comments “absurd.” Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said “that’s not what we need in a president.” His former running mate, Mike Pence, said his words were “reckless and irresponsible.”
As several Republican presidential hopefuls hit the campaign trail in recent days, many have sharply criticized the former president for his comments about the Middle East. In a speech to his supporters Wednesday, he praised Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group, as “very smart,” and in an interview that aired Thursday, he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as being “not prepared” for Hamas’s recent attack.
The widespread condemnations of Trump marked a departure from less ubiquitous attacks as his opponents seized on a moment to emphasize their conservative credibility on an issue that many in the GOP care about. The nearly united rebuke from his rivals was evident here in the key early state of New Hampshire at town halls and a multi-candidate summit as candidates continued to admonish Trump.
While some voters found Trump’s comments problematic, others excused the former president’s language as his typical offhand way of speaking. Both major parties support the U.S.-Israel alliance, but polling has consistently shown support becoming stronger for the Jewish state among Republicans, and Netanyahu aligned himself with Trump and Republicans during his time in office. Over time, embracing Israel has become a hard-line stance for conservatives wanting to be in good standing with the base.
“To speak in a critical way about Prime Minister Netanyahu, to refer to the terrorist organization Hezbollah as very smart, I think was incomprehensible to me,” Pence said from the Granite State’s Capitol building, where he officially filed to run Friday. “I believe this is a moment where we ought to send a steely resolve to the enemies of Israel.”
“You don’t congratulate or give any credit to murderers,” Haley said after she completed the same traditional rite of passage at the state Capitol. “Period. You don’t. What you do is you call them out.”
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one of Trump’s most vocal opponents, offered seemingly the most critical of the candidates’ reactions.
“He’s a fool,” Christie said on CNN. “Only a fool would make those kinds of comments. Only a fool would give comments that give aid and comfort to Israel’s adversary in this situation, and he always places it in the context of himself.”
The only candidate to back Trump was business entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who said that criticism of Trump was “laughable” given his support of Israel. He called Republicans’ reactions another example of “selective moral outrage.”
But some voters have expressed concerns about Trump’s language.
Julie Vaux, an 85-year-old New Hampshire voter, said she is supporting Haley after voting for Trump in the past two elections because she has grown frustrated with the way Trump speaks. Vaux said Trump speaks what he means but that can create problems for him, a concerning trait for a commander in chief. This recent instance proves that, she said.
“His mouth gets him in trouble,” she said. “He’s his own worst enemy.”
New Hampshire state Rep. Fred Plett (R), who has not decided whom he will support in the primary, said he’s talked to Trump supporters who are unswayed by headline-grabbing comments by the former president, even if they might be untimely or inappropriate.
“There are Trump die-hards,” he said, “and that’s not going to change.”
Several Republican strategists said that candidates’ efforts to contrast themselves are unlikely to make any major dent in Trump’s sizable lead.
Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, said that some voters might be swayed, especially those who are particularly supportive of Israel, but that Trump’s comments will not deter a base that has already committed to the dominant candidate in the party. About one-third of primary voters would probably support the former president no matter what, he said, while there is a smaller faction of the party that would never vote for him.
Those in the middle, who voted for him in 2016 and 2020, “would vote for him against Joe Biden in a heartbeat but are concerned that he’s too controversial, he’s too focused on the past and he says things that will continually get him in trouble,” Ayres said.
Glen Bolger, another GOP pollster, said that Republicans seeing Hamas’s violence in Israel might hear Trump’s comments and “aren’t going to just write that off.”
Shortly after Trump’s remarks, his campaign sought to clarify his stance , sending out statements emphasizing his past support for Israel and posting on Truth Social, “#IStandWithIsrael.”
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung also defended Trump’s comments and said they were meant to criticize the Biden administration for giving Hezbollah the idea to attack from the north, referring to a briefing Monday by a senior U.S. defense official who expressed concern about Hezbollah opening a second front. But Hezbollah and Israel had already traded fire on the northern border, and the Lebanese militant group had vocally backed Hamas’s attack.
“President 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,” Cheung said. “Smart does not equal good.”
But on Friday, DeSantis theorized that Trump had gone off script, revealing “the real Donald Trump,” and that the former president was upset with Netanyahu, widely known as “Bibi,” for congratulating Biden after he defeated Trump in the 2020 election.
“He attacked Bibi after the country suffered the worst attack it’s had in its modern history,” DeSantis told reporters. “That’s about him. That’s not about the greater good of what Israel is trying to do or American security.”
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson agreed with DeSantis that Trump’s comments prove he is more focused on himself than America, adding that his remarks undermine support of Israel and are “consistent with his character.”
“Some people excuse it, saying, ‘It’s just Donald Trump being Donald Trump,’” Hutchinson told The Washington Post. “I think the problem is Donald Trump is being Donald Trump.”
Since facing blowback from his comments, Trump has continued to post on his social media platform, praising Israel’s response to Hamas’s attack.
“I have always been impressed by the skill and determination of the Israeli Defence Forces,” he wrote. “As they defend their Nation against ruthless terrorists, I want to wish every soldier the best of luck. May you return home safely to your families, and may God bless you all!”
In a short video posted Friday night, he declared, without naming anyone specifically, that no one else could protect Israel as he had when president.
“I kept Israel safe,” he said. “Nobody else will; nobody else can. And I know all the players; they can’t do it.”
Florida state Rep. Randy Fine (R), who has endorsed DeSantis, said that while he will continue to support the Florida governor, he was dissatisfied with his rebuke of Trump. Fine, who is Jewish, said DeSantis should focus on supporting Jewish people in Florida rather than attacking Trump, who he said was the most supportive of Israel of any president.
“Now is not the time for politics,” he said.
Fine said that most Republican voters who have heard Trump speak before understand what he means when he talks.
Trump has previously called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “genius,” declared that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is “a brilliant man,” and congratulated North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for a leadership role in the World Health Organization.
“During our four years together, I heard him often use flattering terms to speak about authoritarian leaders,” Pence told CNN in an interview Friday. “I think it’s out of place always, but especially now. This is a dire moment.”
When DeSantis was asked during a campaign event about his admonishment of Trump now vs. when he made other controversial remarks, the governor said he didn’t condemn the former president when he called Putin a genius because he wasn’t asked at the time and he’s running for president now.
Morgan Ortagus, a former spokeswoman for the State Department under Trump, declined to speak to Trump’s recent comments, praising him instead for his policies that she said showed his support for Israel, particularly moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and endorsing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Asked whether Hezbollah should be called “very smart,” Ortagus, who is Jewish, said, “I think we should just call them terrorists.”