WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Former President Donald Trump and other GOP contenders tried to lay blame on the Biden administration after Hamas militants launched the deadliest attack on Israel in decades, citing a $6 billion transfer to Iran that administration officials insisted Saturday had yet to be spent.
Hamas’ surprise early morning attack during a major Jewish holiday Saturday marks a new foreign policy front in a presidential election that has already been unusually dominated by foreign affairs. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has divided the Republican field, with some like Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis questioning the U.S.’s continued involvement, while others like former Vice President Mike Pence insist that supporting the Ukrainian military is vital to U.S. national security interests.
On Saturday, the candidates appeared united, standing with Israel.
“The Hamas terrorist invasion of Israeli territory and the murder of Israeli soldiers today and the brutal murder of citizens is an act of savagery that must and will be crushed,” Trump said at an appearance in Waterloo, Iowa.
Trump, like others, directly blamed the $6 billion — “American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks,” he said in an earlier statement — and argued that, under Biden, the U.S. is perceived as being “weak and ineffective” on the global stage, opening the door to hostility.
“They didn’t have that level of aggression with me. They didn’t have it. This would have never happened with me either,” Trump claimed, adding later in Cedar Rapids that Biden had “betrayed Israel” with the deal.
Biden on Saturday decried the “unconscionable” assault and pledged to ensure Israel has “what it needs to defend itself” after the attack.
Much of the Republican criticism focused on a complex deal announced by the Biden administration in September to release five U.S. citizens detained in Iran. As part of the deal, roughly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets that were being held in South Korea were transferred to an account in Doha, Qatar.
Although Hamas is a Sunni Muslim group, it has a militant wing that has long nurtured close ties with Iran, a source of funding and a Shiite powerhouse. Hamas and Iran are brought together by a shared enmity toward Israel.
Administration officials said Saturday that no money in the Doha account so far has been spent.
The $6 billion figure is not U.S. taxpayer money, senior Biden administration officials stressed at the time of the deal, but rather payments made by South Korea to Iran to buy oil in recent years. The funds had been stuck in South Korea due to U.S. sanctions. That money is now held in a restricted account in Doha, and is meant to be used for solely humanitarian purposes — such as food and medicine for Iranians — and handled by what the administration described as vetted non-Iranian vendors.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has said his country would spend the money “wherever we need it,” although the U.S. has said in response that it would exercise rigorous oversight over how the funds are disbursed and that it could freeze the assets again if needed.
DeSantis, in a video statement, accused Biden of “policies that have gone easy on Iran” and have “helped to fill their coffers. Israel is now paying the price for those policies. We’re going to stand with the State of Israel, they need to root out Hamas and we need to stand up to Iran.”
And South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott alleged the attack was “the Biden $6 billion ransom payment at work.”
“We didn’t just invite this aggression, we paid for it,” he said in a statement.
Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said she could not directly address Republican criticism due to federal restrictions.
“But I can clarify the facts: Not a single cent from these funds has been spent, and when it is spent, it can only be spent on things like food and medicine for the Iranian people,” she said Saturday in a statement. “These funds have absolutely nothing to do with the horrific attacks today and this is not the time to spread disinformation.”
Brian Nelson, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at Treasury, also stressed that “these restricted funds cannot go to Iran” and that “any suggestion to the contrary is false and misleading.”
Pence also blamed Biden, saying the current administration “projects weakness on the world stage” and “kowtows to the mullahs in Iran.” But in an appearance in Iowa, Pence also turned the focus on his GOP rivals who have been advocating more isolationist policies, particularly on Ukraine, calling the attack a “testament to the fact that we need new leadership in the White House, but we also need leadership in the Republican Party that understands the stakes, that understands we achieve peace through strength.”
“I call on Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Ron DeSantis,” he said, “to abandon the language of appeasement — to say that we will stand strong with Israel, we will stand strong with Ukraine, we will stand as the leader of the free world.”
Colvin reported from New York, Kim from Washington.