U.S. President Barack Obama unleashed a blistering rebuke of Republican White House hopefuls, calling their attacks on his landmark nuclear deal with Iran "ridiculous if it weren't so sad."
Standing before television cameras during a trip to Africa July 27, Obama suggested the bellicose rhetoric from some GOP candidates was an attempt to divert attention from Donald Trump, the wealthy businessman-turned presidential contender whose popularity is confounding the Republican field.
"Maybe it gets attention and maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines, but it's not the kind of leadership that is needed for America right now," Obama said during a news conference in Ethiopia.
Obama's comments marked his most direct engagement in the race to succeed him. Until now, he's largely limited his commentary to policy differences with Republicans, often sidestepping the names of specific candidates.
But the president's unsparing criticism specifically targeted candidates Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, as well as Trump and underscored his sensitivity to efforts to scuttle the Iran accord, which he hopes will be his signature foreign policy initiative.
"In 18 months, I'm turning over the keys," Obama said. "I want to make sure I'm turning over the keys to somebody who is serious about the serious problems that the country faces and the world faces."
The president was asked specifically about Huckabee's assertion that Obama had agreed to a nuclear deal that would "take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven," a reference to crematoria in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
The Israeli government staunchly opposes the agreement and views an Iranian nuclear program as a threat to its existence.
Obama said the "ridiculous" comments from Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, were part of a broader pattern from Republicans. He also singled out for ridicule Cruz, the Texas senator, for saying the nuclear deal makes Obama — not Iran — the leading state sponsor of terrorism.
"These are leaders in the Republican Party," Obama said, seeming incredulous. He suggested the GOP candidates were breaking a longstanding American tradition of not playing politics with serious foreign policy matters, and instead were playing "fast and loose" with facts.
"There is a reason why 99 percent of the world thinks it's a good deal -- it's because it's a good deal," he said. "I've not yet heard a factual argument on the other side that holds up to scrutiny."
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, said she was "offended personally" by Huckabee's comments.
"One can disagree with the particulars of the agreement to put a lid on the nuclear weapons program of Iran, and that is fair game. But this steps over the line," Clinton said July 27.
Huckabee dismissed the criticism, arguing that what was "ridiculous and sad" was that Obama wasn't taking Iran's threats to destroy Israel seriously.
"I will stand with our ally Israel to prevent the terrorists in Tehran from achieving their own stated goal of another Holocaust," Huckabee said.
The White House is the midst of an intense lobbying campaign to prevent Congress from blocking implementation of the Iran deal. Lawmakers have until mid-September to review the accord, which aims to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.
The Republican candidates are united in their opposition to the deal, saying Obama has left Iran on the brink of building a bomb and done nothing to address Tehran's support for terrorism. Some, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have vowed to immediately scrap the agreement if elected.
With reporting by AP and Reuters