WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called U.S. President Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton “co-founders” of Islamic State on Thursday, igniting fresh criticism of his inflammatory campaign style.
The New York real estate developer has previously attacked Obama and Clinton, secretary of state from 2009-13, for how the United States pulled out of Iraq after the war, saying it helped create the militant Islamist group that has seized swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The idea that a sitting U.S. president created a militant group determined to kill Americans and other Westerners took that line of attack to a new level. Trump first made the assertion in a speech Wednesday night in Florida. He repeated it in an interview Thursday morning with CNBC.
His remarks followed a troubled week for the Republican candidate. Party leaders urged Trump to focus on the campaign to beat Clinton after he drew strong criticism for a persistent confrontation with the family of Muslim American soldier who died in Iraq and for his initial refusal to support prominent Republican congressional candidates in their primary races.
Recent opinion polls have shown Trump losing ground to Clinton, a former U.S. senator and first lady, in the race for the Nov. 8 election. An average of polls by RealClearPolitics has Clinton 7.7 percentage points ahead, at 48 percent to his 40.3 percent.
“He (Obama) was the founder of ISIS. And so was she. I mean I call them co-founders,” said Trump, who says he opposed the Iraq war. “He shouldn’t have gotten out way he got out. It was a disaster, what he did,” he told CNBC.
Obama had opposed the Iraq war and campaigned for the White House in 2008 on a promise to end it. The United States pulled out combat troops in 2011.
Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had its roots in the al Qaeda insurgency that arose after the United States led an invasion of Iraq in 2003. Known for its brutality, the group in 2014 declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where fighting continues to rage.
Clinton spokesman Jesse Lehrich, in response to Trump’s comments, pointed to U.S. advances against the militant group in Libya this week. “FYI – U.S.-backed militias retook ISIS’s stronghold in Libya today thanks to Obama-authorized air strikes,” he said in a tweet late on Wednesday.
Trump did not back down, asking on CNBC: “Is there something wrong with saying that? Why – are people complaining that I said he was the founder of ISIS? All I do is tell the truth, I’m a truth teller.”
Supporters of Trump, who has never held elected office, like his combative and often insulting style but it has drawn wide criticism, not just from the Clinton campaign. Many Republicans have urged him to change tactics and focus on the economy.
U.S. Representative Sean Duffy, a Republican from Wisconsin who backs Trump, said Obama and Clinton did not found Islamic State and urged Trump to stay on message.
“Stay on script. Don’t go off script. Read your teleprompter and you’re going to be fine,” Duffy said on MSNBC.
Trump bristles at the notion he should change. “I don’t think I’ve made too many errors,” he told CNBC. If his style costs him the election in 90 days, he goes back to a good life, he said.
“It’s not what I’m looking to do – I think we’re going to have a victory but we’ll see,” Trump added.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Frances Kerry)