GOP candidates engage in fiery spats over foreign policy, TikTok and Trump

GOP candidates engage in fiery spats over foreign policy, TikTok and Trump

MIAMI — Five of the six leading candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination exchanged bitter personal attacks in between verbal salvos over foreign policy and the economy at Wednesday night’s third primary debate.

As at the two previous showdowns, Vivek Ramaswamy was at the center of the drama, with the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur suggesting at one point that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 45, wears heels.

Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, 51, later blasted Ramaswamy as “scum” after he invoked her adult daughter’s use of Chinese-owned TikTok to defend his presence on the app.

In notably substantive disagreements, the challengers largely argued over who would take the hardest line toward Beijing while differing on Ukraine and the right approach to anti-Israel rallies in cities and on campuses across the US.

Former President Donald Trump, 77, skipped the debate to hold a rally in nearby Hialeah while backers of President Biden, 80, sought to counter-program with cutouts of Biden in aviators lining nearby sidewalks.

‘Cheney in three-inch heels’

Early in the debate, Ramaswamy aimed at DeSantis while blasting his and Haley’s hawkish foreign policy views.

“Do you want a leader from a different generation who is gonna put this country first? Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels? In which case, we’ve got two of them on stage tonight,” Ramaswamy zinged, referencing recent controversy over DeSantis’ footwear.


Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis
Vivek Ramaswamy took aim at Ron DeSantis’ foreign policy views with a jab at his “three-inch heels.”
AP

Haley at first attempted to laugh off Ramaswamy’s attacks, which included an attempt to equate her post-ambassadorship career with first son Hunter Biden’s shady foreign business dealings.

“They’re five-inch heels and I don’t wear them unless you can run in them,” Haley joked.

DeSantis ignored the attack entirely.

Later, Haley fumed at Ramaswamy after he responded to her past criticism by noting that “her own daughter was actually using the [TikTok] app for a long time. So you might want to take care of your family first.”

“You’re just scum,” Haley said angrily after initially telling Ramaswamy to “keep my daughter’s name out of your voice.”

China clash

When DeSantis opted to argue, he focused his fire on Haley for allegedly doing too little to restrict Chinese influence in her past offices, saying China is “to this generation what the Soviet Union was so the post-World War II generation.”

“[Haley] welcomed them into South Carolina, gave them land near a military base, wrote the Chinese ambassador a love letter saying what a great friend they were,” he said. “In Florida, I banned China for buying land … we kept the Confucius Institutes out of our universities.”

That led Ramaswamy to chime in and scold DeSantis: “There was a lobbying-based exemption in that bill that allowed Chinese nationals to buy land within a 20-mile radius of a military base lobbied for by one of your donors,” a reference to hedge fund manager Ken Griffin.

“I think we have to call a spade a spade,” he added.

Christie, meanwhile, called for TikTok to be banned “because they are poisoning American minds. I would do it, week one.”

“This is one of the big failings among many of the Trump administration,” added Christie, a rare direct attack on the front-runner at a debate when candidates were invited to present themselves as alternatives to Trump rather than disparage him directly.

“He talked tough about TikTok … but when it came down to it, he did not ban them.”

Zelensky a ‘Nazi’?

Ramaswamy at one point provoked gasps by seemed to refer to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, as a “Nazi” — leading his campaign to insist he didn’t intend to give that impression.

“Ukraine is not a paragon of democracy. This is a country that has banned 11 opposition parties, it has consolidated all media into one state TV media arm — that’s not democratic,” he said.

“It has threatened not to hold elections this year unless the US forks over more money — that is not democratic. It has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks — the comedian in cargo pants, a man called Zelensky — doing it in their own ranks.”

But despite the impression that Ramaswamy was calling Zelensky a Nazi, his campaign told The Post he was referring to the appearance of a Ukrainian SS veteran at a speech by Zelensky to Canada’s parliament earlier this year. Other Kyiv critics have noted that some pro-government militias, including the Azov Brigade, do have neo-Nazi roots.

The other candidates let Ramaswamy’s inference pass, with Haley attacking him again by quipping: “Putin and [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] are salivating at the thought that someone like that to becoming president””

All the other candidates on stage spoke in favor of continued US aid to Kyiv as it resists Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nearly two-year-invasion, as Congress considers President Biden’s request for more than $61 billion in additional aid on top of $113 billion already appropriated.

Scott, however, urged “a level of accountability” that “allows the American people to understand where the resources have gone.”

Israel’s war

Candidates also differed on the proper approach toward anti-Israel, pro-Hamas protests on college campuses following the terror group’s Oct. 7 attack on the Jewish state that killed more than 1,400 people.

Ramaswamy said that Republicans should condemn anti-Israel and antisemitic speech without penalizing it — while DeSantis and Scott threatened to yank foreign students’ visas and other federal funding for institutions of higher learning.

“We don’t quash this with censorship,” Ramaswamy said. “Telling student groups to disband — mark my words, soon they will say if you question a vaccine and its side effects you’re a bioterrorist, soon they will say that if you show up at a school board meeting you’re a domestic terrorist.”

Scott vowed: “To all the students on visas who are encouraging Jewish genocide: I would deport you.”

“You should not have money going to these places,” added DeSantis. “We are not going to stand for this on college campuses any longer.”

Trump

DeSantis opened by hitting the 45th president with one of his sharpest debate attacks to date, saying: “Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016. He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance.”

“He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall. He should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp,” DeSantis said.

Christie, a former federal prosecutor, referenced the four pending criminal cases against Trump, “Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail in courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country.”

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