This story has been updated.
ADDIS ABABA—President Obama sharply criticized Republican 2016 presidential candidates Monday for engaging in “inflammatory remarks” that were cheapening the nation’s political discourse.
Speaking at a press conference in Ethiopia, Obama spoke at length in response to a question about the remark former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—who is seeking the presidency for a second time--made that the Iran deal was so flawed it will “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”
Obama talked about what he said was the poor state of political discourse in the United States. “The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are just part of a general pattern that would be considered ridiculous, if it wasn’t so sad,” he said. “We’ve had a sitting senator call John Kerry Pontius Pilate. We’ve had a sitting senator, who also happens to be running for president, suggest that I’m the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders in the Republican Party.”
The president identified several in the current GOP field, including businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), for lodging “outrageous attacks.” Politicians can have serious political differences, he said, “but we just don’t fling out ad hominem attacks like that, because it doesn’t help inform the American people.”
He mused at one point, “Maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines.” He added later, “We’re creating a culture that is not conducive to good policy, or good politics.”
Noting that he’s “turning over the keys” to the White House in less 18 months, he said, “I want to make sure I’m turning over the keys to someone who’s serious about the problems the country faces and the world faces.”
Huckabee responded to the president’s remarks in a statement Monday morning, doubling-down on his previous comments.
"What's 'ridiculous and sad' is that President Obama does not take Iran's repeated threats seriously. For decades, Iranian leaders have pledged to 'destroy,' 'annihilate,' and 'wipe Israel off the map' with a 'big Holocaust,’” Huckabee said. “'Never again' will be the policy of my administration and I will stand with our ally Israel to prevent the terrorists in Tehran from achieving their own stated goal of another Holocaust."
Obama also took pains to defend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his 2008 rival who has come under attack from Trump. But he said that “when outrageous statements” are made about him, those irate over the aspersions cast in McCain’s direction “were pretty quiet.”