EXCLUSIVE: Some of Donald Trump’s leading rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination are blasting the former president over his controversial critical comments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his description of a terror group as “smart.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in an exclusive Fox News interview on Thursday, pointed to Trump’s comments and argued that the former president “makes no sense.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during Trump’s first two years in office, said in a one-on-one interview with Fox News Digital a couple of hours later that “we can’t be doing this. You don’t need to be talking about how good Hezbollah is, and you don’t need to be talking about how bad Netanyahu is.”
Trump’s comments, made during a speech Wednesday night in Florida, came just days after a sneak attack Saturday by Hamas on Israel resulted in the deadliest assault on the Jewish State in decades. Thousands have been killed and wounded after Hamas militants swarmed into Israel and butchered civilians, and in the resulting Israeli counterattacks on the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip.
Trump, who often showcases that he was the strongest defender of Israel ever to serve as president, criticized Netanyahu, claiming the Israeli leader backed out at the last minute in the plan to kill Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who was taken out by an American drone strike in 2020.
“I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down. That was a very terrible thing,” Trump said. “We were disappointed by that, very disappointed. But we did the job ourselves, and it was absolute precision, magnificent, beautiful job. And then Bibi tried to take credit for it. That didn’t make me feel too good.”
Pointing to the apparent Israeli intelligence failure to anticipate the Hamas attack, Trump said Israel’s “got to straighten it out” and “strengthen themselves up.”
Trump also blamed President Biden’s administration for the terror attack on Israel — as well as for clashes on Israel’s northern border with Hezbollah, which like Hamas is backed by Iran. Trump credited Hezbollah, which along with Hamas is committed to the destruction of the Jewish State, saying “Hezbollah, they’re very smart.”
The Florida governor, who signed an executive order Thursday to conduct rescue operations in Israel and to provide support to Jerusalem in its war against Hamas, told Fox News that “our ally has been under an unprecedented assault. You’ve seen the death toll continue to mount in the most barbaric fashion. This is a time to be standing with Israel.”
Pointing to Trump’s comments, DeSantis argued that to be attacking the prime minister and the defense minister just makes no sense. To be saying that Hezbollah, talking about how smart they are, just doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t know what he was doing. I know they got him on the teleprompter. When he gets off that teleprompter, then there’s things that happen. But the reality is this is the time to be strong, it’s a time for moral clarity and to make sure that Israel is able to defend itself to the hilt,” added DeSantis, who was interviewed at the New Hampshire Statehouse, minutes before he formally filed to place his name on the state’s GOP presidential primary.
Haley, interviewed in Rochester, New Hampshire following a town hall, charged that Trump “can’t leave the past alone. I’m mean everything that he thinks about is how someone treated him or what they said to him or what happened in the past. The world is a dangerous place. We’ve got to be dealing with our issues straight on. Focused, disciplined, and ready to go.”
“We can’t be doing this. You don’t need to be talking about how good Hezbollah is and you don’t need to be talking about how bad Netanyahu is,” Haley said. “Right now we need to have the backs of Israel. We need to do what it takes to eliminate Hamas. We need to do what it takes to get those American hostages and Israeli hostages home. And we need to do what it takes to bring peace in the world and stop all the other nonsense and chaos.”
Haley wasn’t the only Trump administration official to criticize the former president.
Trump’s two-time running-mate, former Vice President Mike Pence, said in an interview on radio show “New Hampshire Today with Chris Ryan” that “Hezbollah aren’t smart, they’re evil.”
“This is no time for the former president, or any other American leader to be sending any message other than America stands with Israel,” Pence added. “And look, I know the former president was frustrated with Netanyahu; he’s been critical over the last two years… I consider him a friend, and I’m proud of the relationship that America had under our administration with Israel.”
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, another rival for the GOP presidential nomination, also criticized Trump’s comments.
Burgum, after filing to place his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, told Fox News Digital that “it’s about leading forward. It’s not about criticizing something you know. You want it you want to do that, then be a pundit on TV. Do you want to lead? Then you actually get it in. And you have to you have to take responsibility for what’s going on. And you have to say, here’s our path forward.”
A Trump campaign spokesperson clarified the GOP front-runner’s remarks in a statement to Fox News Digital.
“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,” the spokesperson said. “Smart does not equal good. It just proves Biden is stupid.”
The spokesperson also pointed to another moment from Wednesday’s speech, when Trump said that if he regains office, “the United States will fully support Israel, defeating, dismantling, and permanently destroying the terrorist group, Hamas.”
While Trump and Netanyahu were close allies for years, the former president turned on the embattled Israel leader after Netanyahu congratulated then-President-elect Biden for winning the 2020 election while Trump was still trying to overturn the results.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates called Trump’s statements “dangerous and unhinged,” while the Israeli communications minister, Shlomo Karhi, told Israel’s Channel 13 that it was “shameful that a man like that, a former U.S. president, abets propaganda and disseminates things that wound the spirit of Israel’s fighters and its citizens.”
The political question going forward is whether Trump’s comments will hurt his current political standing as the commanding front-runner in the GOP presidential nomination race.
“I think he stepped in it, but I think like almost everything else, it’s not likely to leave a lasting mark,” longtime New Hampshire based Republican consultant Jim Merrill told Fox News.
Pointing to Trump’s record in the White House, including his moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Merrill said the former president’s “kind of inoculated himself on Israel.”
“Time will tell, but I think it’s likely this will be just another one of those things that we all thought might be an issue for him but won’t be,” Merril, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns, predicted.
Fox News’ Brooke Singman, Danielle Wallace, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.