He’s long defied the norms of political gravity, but former President Donald Trump’s years of resistance to scandals and controversial comments seemed to once again be in question this week.
The race for the White House was turned upside down by a sneak attack by Hamas on Israel resulted in the deadliest assault on the Jewish State in decades.
Days after the initial attack — which resulted in thousands killed and wounded after Hamas militants swarmed into Israel and butchered civilians, spurring Israeli counterattacks on the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip — Trump stirred controversy earlier this week courtesy of comments critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his description of a terror group as “smart.”
His comments drew scorn not only from Democrats but also from some of his top rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
In interviews with Fox News, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Trump’s comment “just doesn’t make any sense.”
And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, emphasized “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, 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,” Trump said.
Pointing to the apparent Israeli intelligence failure to anticipate the Hamas attack, Trump said Israel must “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 then credited Hezbollah, which along with Hamas is committed to the destruction of the Jewish State, saying “Hezbollah, they’re very smart.”
“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,” DeSantis argued, as he pointed to Trump. “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.”
Haley 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.”
Asked about the controversy, Trump’s two-time running-mate, former Vice President Mike Pence shook his head as he told Fox News on Friday that he “found the former president’s comments to be reckless and irresponsible.”
Another 2024 rival, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, told Fox News that if “you want to do that, then be a pundit on TV.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
Hours later, on Thursday evening, Trump touted in a statement that “there was no better friend or ally of Israel than President Donald J. Trump. Under my leadership, the United States stood in complete solidarity with Israel, and as a result, Israel was safe, America was safe, and for the first time in decades, we made historic strides for Peace in the Middle East.”
On Friday Trump took to social media to write “#IStandWithIsrael #IStandWithBibi.”
“I have always been impressed by the skill and determination of the Israeli Defence Forces. 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!” he wrote in a separate posting.
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.
“It’s a bigger deal than the usual screw up. These comments and the personal pique he has against Netanyahu just feels like such a selfish, stupid thing when the country (and the GOP specifically) seem to be squarely behind Israel and their government,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant and veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns in Iowa and nationally.
Kochel, who’s neutral in the 2024 GOP nomination battle, argued that “this all goes back to the fact that Netanyahu congratulated Biden for winning the election. If these are the issues that will dictate Trump’s foreign policy thinking, he’s not putting America first, he’s putting Trump first. Maybe it’s time to rename his agenda.”
Longtime New Hampshire based Republican consultant Jim Merrill said “I think he stepped in it, but I think like almost everything else, it’s not likely to leave a lasting mark.”
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,” Merrill, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns who’s not taking sides in the 2024 nomination battle, predicted.
Pence acknowledges fundraising struggles
Pence is skipping the Nevada GOP’s Feb. 8 presidential caucuses and instead this past week filed for the state run primary, which will be held two days earlier.
Four Republican contenders have filed to take part in the caucuses. Pence is the first candidate to take part in the state’s primary.
Nevada’s GOP is barring candidates who take part in the primary to also put their names in the caucus, where the state’s small number of Republican delegates to next year’s convention will be up for grabs.
The move may be a sign that Pence wanted to pass on investing in the kind of organization needed to perform well in a caucus, and instead will aim for the less expensive option of trying to score a symbolic finish in the primary.
Asked about his move as he filed Friday at the Statehouse in New Hampshire to place his name on the state’s presidential primary, Pence told reporters “we just made a decision that we would compete in the primary and not in the caucus.”
Pence, who is facing an uphill climb for the nomination thanks in great part to his alienation of MAGA voters due his turning down of Trump’s overtures for the then-vice president to overturn the 2020 election through his constitutional role overseeing congressional certification of the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pointing to the upcoming deadline for the candidates to disclose their latest fundraising reports, Pence said “it may be obvious in the days ahead that other campaigns have more money than ours. But it’s not about money. It’s about votes. And so we want the people of Nevada to know that we look forward to carrying our message in Nevada.”
“We’re going to do our very best to marshal our resources,” Pence said. But he acknowledged that “.we probably have to be a little bit more selective in where we invest resources.”