GOP candidates use attacks on Israel to criticize Biden for his Iran deal
By Neil Vigdor
Republican presidential candidates seized on the Hamas attack on Israel on Saturday to try to lay blame on President Joe Biden, drawing a connection between the surprise assault and a recent hostage release deal between the United States and Iran, a longtime backer of the group.
Former President Donald Trump, who has frequently presented himself as a unflinching ally of Israel and who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018, blamed Biden for the conflict.
While campaigning Saturday in Waterloo, Iowa, he said the attacks had occurred because “we are perceived as being weak and ineffective, with a really weak leader.”
On several occasions, Trump went further, saying that the hostage deal was a catalyst of the attacks. “The war happened for two reasons,” he said. “The United States is giving — and gave to Iran — $6 billion over hostages.”
In exchange for the release of five Americans held in Tehran, Iran, the Biden administration agreed in August to free up $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenue funds for humanitarian purposes. The administration has emphasized that the money could be used only for “food, medicine, medical equipment that would not have a dual military use.”
A senior Biden administration official responded to the comments by Trump — as well as to criticism by other Republican candidates — by calling them “total lies” and accusing the politicians of having either a “complete misunderstanding” of the facts or of participating willingly in a “complete mischaracterization and disinformation of facts.”
Another Biden administration official, Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in a statement, “These funds have absolutely nothing to do with the horrific attacks today, and this is not the time to spread disinformation.”
Trump, the GOP front-runner, was not alone in assailing Biden, as the entire Republican field weighed in on the attacks Saturday.
In a video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faulted the Biden administration for its foreign policy decisions in the Middle East.
“Iran has helped fund this war against Israel, and Joe Biden’s policies that have gone easy on Iran has helped to fill their coffers,” he said. “Israel is now paying the price for those policies.”
In a statement issued through the White House, Biden pledged solidarity with Israel and said that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The United States unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and I made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel,” Biden said.
Yet while the GOP candidates rallied around Israel on Saturday, there is a divide in the party between foreign policy hawks and those who favor a more isolationist approach.
In addition to criticizing Biden on Saturday, former Vice President Mike Pence had harsh words for fellow Republicans who prefer a more hands-off approach to conflicts abroad.
“This is what happens when @POTUS projects weakness on the world stage, kowtows to the mullahs in Iran with a $6 Billion ransom, and leaders in the Republican Party signal American retreat as Leader of the Free World,” Pence wrote on X. “Weakness arouses evil.”
Other Republican candidates, including Nikki Haley, who was an ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina denounced the attacks as acts of terrorism.
“Make no mistake: Hamas is a bloodthirsty terrorist organization backed by Iran and determined to kill as many innocent lives as possible,” Haley said in a statement.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie echoed the criticism of his Republican rivals in a social media post, calling the release of $6 billion by the Biden administration to Iran “idiotic.” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson similarly sought to connect the attack with the release of humanitarian funds for Iran.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a biotech entrepreneur, called the attacks “barbaric and medieval” in a post on X.
“Shooting civilians and kidnapping children are war crimes,” he wrote. “Israel’s right to exist & defend itself should never be doubted and Iran-backed Hamas & Hezbollah cannot be allowed to prevail.”