Several Republican presidential candidates took aim at former President Donald Trump for praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after the hermit kingdom was elected to the executive board of the World Health Organization last week.
“Congratulations to Kim Jung [sic] Un!” Trump wrote Friday on his social media platform, Truth Social.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized Trump’s post at GOP Sen. Joni Ernst's “Roast and Ride” event Saturday in Iowa.
“Kim Jong Un is a thug and a tyrant, and he has tested ballistic missiles against our allies,” Haley told NBC News. “He’s threatened us. There’s nothing to congratulate him about. I mean, he’s been terrible to his people. He’s been terrible to America, and we need to stop being nice to countries that hate America.”
DeSantis said he was “surprised” Trump praised Kim, whom he called a “murderous dictator.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to announce a presidential bid this week, criticized Trump for congratulating Kim.
“Whether it's my former running mate or anyone else, nobody should be praising the dictator in North Korea or praising the leader in Russia, who has launched an unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine,” Pence said Saturday in an interview with Fox News. “This is a time when we ought to make it clear to the world that we stand for freedom and we stand with those who stand for freedom.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also piled on Trump in a tweet Saturday: “Kim Jong-Un, the tyrant dictator in North Korea should not be praised by Donald Trump for a leadership role in the World Health Organization. We sanction leaders who oppress their people. We do not elevate them on the world stage.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who has ruled out running for president but recently hosted a private donor retreat to raise money for GOP candidates, joined the fray as well. “Taking our country back from Joe Biden does not start with congratulating North Korea’s murderous dictator,” he tweeted.
Kemp drew Trump’s ire after he refused to push baseless claims of election fraud in Georgia.
Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung attacked DeSantis in a statement, arguing that the Iowa event, which Trump did not attend, would not affect Trump's status as the front-runner.
"President Trump achieved peace through strength and, as a result, no new wars were started under his presidency. On the other hand, Ron DeSantis is a puppet of the establishment war mongers and doesn’t have the strength, fortitude, or will to stand up against America’s adversaries," Cheung said. "In Iowa there were far better candidates than DeSantis who didn’t come across as an awkward and wooden swamp-like knock off of Jeb Bush."
He also touted Trump's record on the economy, energy, the southern border and foreign policy.
In 2019, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to step onto North Korean soil since the 1953 armistice divided the peninsula, after having met with Kim twice before.
During his presidency, Trump claimed that he had “developed a very, very good relationship” with Kim.
“We’ll see what that means,” Trump said in remarks to governors in February 2019. “But he’s never had a relationship with anybody from this country and hasn’t had lots of relationships anywhere.”
Kim also heaped praise on Trump in a letter to the White House before a summit between them in Vietnam in 2019 while making it clear he wished to negotiate only with Trump and not his envoys, current and former U.S. officials said at the time.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com