The Republican candidates for president agree on two things about Hamas’s attack on Israel: They’d give the Jewish state anything it needed, and whatever came next would be Joe Biden’s fault.
“The atrocities we’re witnessing in Israel would never have happened if I was president,” Donald Trump said in Wolfeboro, N.H. on Monday, promising to reinstate “the travel ban on terror-afflicted countries” if he won in 2024.
“I can tell you this: I wouldn’t have slept through those attacks,” Ron DeSantis told a town hall audience in Cedar Rapids on Sunday. “If I were in the White House. I’d have been up at 2 in the morning, and we would have been doing what we need to do to protect this country.”
In a Tuesday speech at the Hudson Institute, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott went further, saying that the president had “blood on his hands” by not doing more, earlier, to support Israel. “His weakness invited the attack,” Scott said. “His cash giveaways to Iran funded the attack.”
Hours into the war, most of the GOP field had condemned the Biden administration for not linking Hamas’ attack more strongly to Iran. One by one, they suggested that the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian assets — earmarked for humanitarian purposes, as part of prisoner swap — was tantamount to helping finance the attack. “They’re moving money around as we speak,” Nikki Haley told MSNBC, “because they know that $6 billion is going to be released.”
On CNN, Mike Pence took a shot at his higher-polling rivals — “this is what happens when we have leading voices like Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Ron DeSantis signaling retreat from America’s role as leader of the free world” — but reserved the most blame for Biden.
“President Joe Biden’s kowtowing for the last two-and-a-half years to the mullahs in Iran, lifting sanctions, begging them to get back in the Iran nuclear deal, and then paying $6 billion in a ransom for hostages, I think set the conditions for this unprecedented terrorist attack,” Pence said on Sunday.
There was no dissent from that from any Republican candidate; they differed only in how they wanted to punish Iran, and how much they worried that terror could come to America, too. DeSantis went to a Florida synagogue on Tuesday to announce new state sanctions on Iranian business, while balking at a question from MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on whether America should support Israeli strikes on Iran: “It’s too soon to tell.”
The fundamental problem for Donald Trump’s challengers is that he was president, and they weren’t. He can hark back to how things were when he ran things — America’s embassy moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with minimal blowback, relentless sanctions on Iran — and they usually have to praise him and agree.
That’s been the state of the primary since Saturday, with Trump’s rivals asking voters to picture them as commander-in-chief by saying they’d model his approach to Israel. Haley and Pence own part of that policy, as former U.N. ambassador and vice president, and agree with his premise that “peace through strength” was supplanted by “appeasement,” which made Israel vulnerable.
Trump isn’t vulnerable here, in a Republican primary, and Biden is — even if the actions he’s taken so far rhyme with what Republicans want. (“I would have constant conversations with Netanyahu to make sure that he knows there is no daylight between our country and Israel,” Scott told Newsmax; according to Netanyahu, that’s what he’s gotten from Biden.)
And by Tuesday afternoon, there were some emerging distinctions in the 2024 candidates’ approach. Vivek Ramaswamy, who’d said American aid to Israel wouldn’t be as necessary after he won the presidency and made peace, said that his rivals were being too glib about the risk of a wider war: “We require a rational response that supports Israel while avoiding another U.S.-led disaster in the Middle East,” he said on Fox News. In an interview with Tucker Carlson he described a “zero sum game” where Biden’s interests conflicted with Israel’s — specifically, “300,000 U.S. artillery shells stored in Israel that we encouraged [them] to send to Ukraine.”
Ramaswamy was previewing a coming fight between Republicans, about whether new aid for Israel should be split from the aid Biden wants for Ukraine. But within the primary, Republican voters view Trump as he views himself — as a successful president who would have prevented all of this, making the funding debate irrelevant.
“Think what our country would have been like if the election had not been rigged and stolen,” Trump said on Monday. “Israel would not now be under attack, zero chance. Ukraine would not be under attack by Russia, zero chance.”
The View From The White House
The president addressed the nation on Tuesday to condemn the attacks and pledge support to Israel. He did not mention Iran, as reporters pressed the administration with Republicans’ questions about the country’s assets, but offered a broad warning in his speech.
“To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t,” Biden said on Tuesday. “Let there be no doubt: The United States has Israel’s back.”
His administration has taken the Republican attacks over the Iran hostage deal seriously, racing to respond in interviews, social media posts, and briefings that none of the money has been spent and comes with restrictions. The White House has pointed out that the Trump administration made humanitarian exceptions to sanctions, too, without the outrage that Republicans are now directing toward un-freezing any of Iran’s assets. And it’s pushed back at the demand to link Iran directly to the attacks, as Republican challengers demand they do so (the issue is sensitive in Israel too, whose government has also not accused Iran of planning the attack).
“We’ve said since the beginning that Iran is complicit in this attack, in the broad sense, because they have provided the lion’s share of funding for the military wing of Hamas; they have provided training; they have provided capabilities; they have provided support,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday. “[But] in terms of this gruesome attack on Oct. 7, we don’t have that information.”
- In Politico, Nick Reisman captures how a rally endorsed by New York City’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter divided the left. “The bigotry and callousness expressed in Times Square on Sunday were unacceptable and harmful in this devastating moment,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. said, and didn’t represent people who rejected “both Hamas’ horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation.”
- Semafor’s Morgan Chalfant talked with former Trump national security advisor Robert O’Brien on Sunday, who said that America would “have to be prepared to rescue Americans who are taken hostage by terrorist organizations.”