LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nikki Haley criticized Donald Trump on Saturday for praising foreign strongmen and warned that his style of “chaos, vendettas and drama” would be dangerous, making her sharpest critiques of the former president as the two GOP presidential candidates and their rivals addressed an influential group of Jewish Republicans.
“Eight years ago, it was good to have a leader who broke things,” Haley said of Trump. “But right now, we need to have a leader who also knows how to put things back together.”
Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, leaned into her foreign policy experience as she argued for longstanding Republican ideas on foreign policy at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual meeting in Las Vegas. Another GOP foreign policy traditionalist and periodic Trump critic, former Vice President Mike Pence, used his appearance to end his candidacy, the latest sign of the former president's dominance in the primary.
The Republican presidential candidates on Saturday uniformly supported Israel's offensive against Hamas, a departure from their divide on the whether the U.S. should support Ukraine against Russia's invasion.
Support for Israel is a central issue in the Republican primary, particularly among evangelical Christians influential in Iowa, which holds the first Republican caucuses.
Trump, the runaway front-runner in the 2024 race, did not acknowledge Haley, Pence or the others who spoke before him. He instead extolled his own record in the White House. He boasted that if elected president again, he would restore “peace through strength” and would “stop World War III.”
He drew rousing applause, cheers and multiple standing ovations.
This year’s summit, running Friday through Sunday, comes as Israel responds to Hamas militants who killed hundreds of civilians in an Oct. 7 attack. The candidates took the stage in Las Vegas hours after Israel on Saturday expanded its ground operation into Gaza, expanding the war into a new stage of fighting. Israel was also continuing a bombardment of air strikes on the enclave of 2.3 million people that cut off communications and led to warnings of major civilian casualties.
Pence did not mention Trump while announcing he would drop out of the race. But he called on President Joe Biden to unconditionally support Israel. He urged the crowd at the summit to “hold fast” to faith, family and the U.S. Constitution and he promoted America's role “as leader of the free world.”
Haley mentioned Trump by name and said he was a “pro-Israel president,” but then went on to say: “The question is, what will he do in the future?”
She noted Trump’s comments days after Hamas' attack when he drew condemnation for lashing out at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and referring to the militant group Hezbollah as “very smart." Haley also referred to Trump's repeated praise for the autocratic leaders of China and North Korea.
“These are not good or smart people,” Haley said.
Trump received the same enthusiastic reception he typically has from the Republican Jewish Coalition and declared, “I'm proud to be the best friend that Israel has ever had.”
And despite Haley's comments shortly before he spoke, Trump went on to praise Hungary’s far-right autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, calling him “a very strong man.”
“China respected us. Russia respected us. Everybody respected us. Under my presidency, our country was very, very feared and very, very respected," he said.
Though the crowd of about 1,000 coalition donors was not waring red yarmulkes with the word “Trump” as in years past, their support of him was on display early. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made criticizing Trump central to his campaign, took the stage and was met with immediate boos.
The organization’s longtime benefactor, billionaire casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, became a big backer of Trump and implored coalition members to support Trump in 2016.
Adelson died in 2021. His widow, Miriam Adelson, has remained a major party donor but has pledged to stay neutral in the primary.
In their remarks, most of the candidates pledged robust support for Israel. Many of the candidates blamed Biden, especially for a $6 billion transfer to Iran as part of a deal to release five U.S. citizens detained in Iran, and criticized Democratic officials and liberals for what they say is a failure to sufficiently condemn antisemitism.
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, whom Pence and Haley have criticized as inexperienced and wrong on foreign policy, drew boos when he said America’s job “is to be strong at home, to mind our own affairs, to avoid foreign military entanglements that do not relate directly to our homeland here.”
But he was cheered throughout much of the rest of his speech, including when he claimed he “would love nothing more” than for the Israeli military “to put the heads of the top 100 Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis noted the official actions he had taken to show support for Israel, from sponsoring charter flights for Americans from Israel to ordering state universities to ban a pro-Palestinian student group.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott accused liberal politicians of failing to speak up enough about the marginalization and oppression of Jewish Americans.
When Scott brought up U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the crowd booed. The lone Palestinian American in Congress has called for a cease-fire and reevaluation of U.S. military aid to Israel over concerns it could be used to commit war crimes. She has been widely criticized by members of both parties who say she hasn’t explicitly faulted Hamas for the attack.
Scott said of Democrat: “They would rather embrace antisemitism within their ranks than upset their liberal base."
Michelle L. Price, The Associated Press