WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not take kindly to being compared by President Barack Obama to Iranians who shout “death to America,” and scolded the commander in chief Thursday for treating the Iran nuclear deal like a political campaign.
In a speech laying out his reasons for cutting the deal, Obama said Wednesday that a superpower like the United States cannot respond impulsively and be pushed toward war by the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that comes from Iranian hard-liners. He suggested that Republicans who hurl their own brand of rhetorical firebombs are actually aligned with Iranians who are yelling slogans in the streets.
“Just because Iranian hard-liners chant ‘death to America’ does not mean that's what all Iranians believe,” Obama said. “It's those hard-liners chanting ‘death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They are making a common cause with the Republican caucus.”
McConnell, speaking at a final news conference before Congress’ August recess, said Republicans have “legitimate concerns over the Iran nuclear agreement” that they will discuss respectfully in September when Congress votes on the agreement.
“What is not helpful is rhetoric like the president has been using,” McConnell said.
“The president strikes me at least so far as treating this like a political campaign,” McConnell said. “Demonize your opponents, gin up the base, get the Democrats all angry, and rally around the president.”
McConnell also said repeatedly that Obama should rein in such talk.
“Rather than this kind of crass political rhetoric, we ought to treat this issue with the dignity it deserves,” he said.
“I wish he would tone down the rhetoric, and let’s talk about the facts,” McConnell said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest later said the president’s comparison was not over the top.
“I think it was a statement of fact,” Earnest said in his daily briefing.
"You have in Iran a group of hard-liners who are strongly opposed to the deal and advocating for its defeat, and here in the United States you have Republicans in Congress who are advocating against the deal and urging its defeat. In fact, you saw some of those same Republicans in Congress actually write a letter the Supreme Leader of Iran advocating for the defeat of the deal,” Earnest said. “So, the fact is they’ve taken the same position.”
McConnell also fired back at the White House position that blocking the Iran agreement would lead to war.
“That’s an absurd argument,” McConnell said. “Let me suggest that had the president and his team spent as much time trying to ratchet up the sanctions on the Iranians over the last two years as they have entering into an agreement … we’d have ended up in a better place.
“It’s not this deal versus war,” he added. “It’s either this deal, or a better deal, or more sanctions.”
Congress does not return from its break until after Labor Day, which falls on Sept. 7. The Iranian deal has to be voted on by Sept. 17.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
This post has been updated to include comments from Josh Earnest and McConnell's comments about war.