Former president Donald Trump on Wednesday criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called Hezbollah terrorist attackers “very smart” as Israel recovers from the deadliest attack it has suffered in 50 years.
“He has been hurt very badly because of what’s happened here,” Trump said of Netanyahu in an excerpt of an interview with Fox News presenter Brian Kilmeade that aired Wednesday night. “He was not prepared. He was not prepared and Israel was not prepared.”
Israel has declared a state of war and called up 360,000 reservists after a surprise attack by Hamas militants on Saturday killed at least 1,200 people and wounded more than 2,700.
Later on Wednesday, Trump, the clear polling leader in the Republican presidential race, complimented the intelligence of Hezbollah, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. The Iran-aligned group, based in Lebanon, exchanged fire with Israeli forces on the country’s northern border Wednesday.
“You know, Hezbollah is very smart,” Trump said. “They’re all very smart.”
That remark drew condemnation from one of his Republican rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“It is absurd that anyone, much less someone running for President, would choose now to attack our friend and ally, Israel, much less praise Hezbollah terrorists as ‘very smart,’ ” DeSantis said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Trump’s comments reflected his long-established pattern of slighting U.S. allies while complimenting adversaries such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung defended the former president’s comments as meant to criticize unspecified U.S. officials for giving Hezbollah the idea to attack from the north. He said Trump was referring to a briefing by a senior U.S. defense official on Monday that expressed concern about Hezbollah opening a second front.
“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,” Cheung said. “Smart does not equal good.”
In the same breath, Trump acknowledged that his remark about Hezbollah could be controversial, immediately adding, “The press doesn’t like when they say it.” He went on to repeat that he views Xi as a “very smart man” because “1.4 billion people, he controls it with an iron fist.”
“They kill me the next day — ‘I said he was smart,’ ” Trump mocked. “What am I going to say? But Hezbollah, they’re very smart.”
He added, speaking again of Israel’s enemies, “They’re vicious and they’re smart and boy, are they vicious.”
Elsewhere in Wednesday’s speech, delivered to an auditorium of supporters in West Palm Beach, Fla., Trump elaborated that he had “a bad experience with Israel as president,” telling a story about the U.S. operation to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. In Trump’s account, Israeli intelligence helped the U.S. locate Soleimani and plan the drone strike that killed him, but on the eve of the operation withdrew its participation.
The accuracy of Trump’s account could not immediately be confirmed. At the time of the assassination, the Israeli government reacted with restraint to avoid fanning tensions with Iran. In 2021, a retired Israeli military officer acknowledged that his country’s intelligence contributed to the U.S. airstrike.
“I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down. That was a very terrible thing,” Trump said in Wednesday’s speech. “So we were disappointed by that. Very disappointed. But we did the job ourself. It was absolute precision, magnificent, beautiful job. And then Bibi tried to take credit for it. That didn’t make me feel too good. But that’s all right.”
As Trump told the story, he suggested he was recounting it publicly for the first time, and that it possibly included classified information. He was indicted in June by special counsel Jack Smith on 40 counts arising from allegedly mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House.
“I don’t think this has ever been told,” Trump said in the speech. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s classified information.’ Well, maybe it is, but I don’t think so.”
In his speech on Wednesday, Trump did not mention the contest for speaker of the House, in which his endorsed candidate, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), lost a conference vote earlier Wednesday to Steve Scalise (R-La.).