RALEIGH, N.C. — Donald Trump praised Saddam Hussein at a campaign rally on Tuesday, embracing the dictator who oppressed Iraq for more than 30 years, aggressively suppressed dissent in his country and was widely considered one of the leading enemies of the United States.
"Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Right? He was a bad guy, really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights — they didn't talk, they were a terrorist, it was over," Trump said as many in his audience of about 2,000 laughed on Tuesday evening. "Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism. You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq. It's like Harvard. Okay? So sad."
This is not the first time Trump has praised Hussein or other dictators, although his comments Tuesday night gathered much more attention than his earlier remarks. In October, Trump said that the world would be "100 percent" better if dictators like Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi were still in power. In February, Trump said at a political event in New Hampshire that "whether you like Saddam Hussein or not, he used to kill terrorists" and now Iraq is a breeding ground for terrorists.
Although this stance is not a new one for Trump, some of his Republican colleagues rushed to distance themselves from the presumptive nominee Tuesday evening. During an interview on Fox News, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pointed to Hussein’s record of human rights abuses and distanced himself from Trump without condemning the candidate directly.
“He was one of the 20th century’s most evil people. He was up there. He committed mass genocide against his own people using chemical weapons,” Ryan told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly when asked for his reaction. “Saddam Hussein was a bad guy.”
Ryan dismissed several questions about his past criticism of Trump earlier in the interview, pointing out that he endorsed him last month but that he believes Trump is ultimately “far better to be commander in chief than Hillary Clinton in my mind.” But he added: “When he says things that I don’t agree with, I’m going to speak my mind,” he said.
Trump was joined at the Tuesday evening rally by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is on Trump's shortlist of potential running mates.
Hillary Clinton's campaign jumped to condemn Trump's comments.
“Donald Trump's praise for brutal strongmen seemingly knows no bounds," said Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser, in a statement. "In reality, Hussein's regime was a sponsor of terrorism — one that paid families of suicide bombers who attacked Israelis, among other crimes. Trump's cavalier compliments for brutal dictators, and the twisted lessons he seems to have learned from their history, again demonstrate how dangerous he would be as commander-in-chief and how unworthy he is of the office he seeks.”
Jose A. DelReal and Sean Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.