Vivek Ramaswamy became embroiled in a heated on-air argument with CNN anchor Abby Phillip when he was asked whether he believed the term “vermin” to be neo-Nazi rhetoric.
Former President Donald Trump used the term when speaking to a crowd in New Hampshire recently, telling his supporters “We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our county.”
Instead of directly answering the question, Mr Ramaswamy instead lashed out at Phillip.
“This is a classic mainstream media move,” he said during an interview on Wednesday. “Pick some individual phrase of Donald Trump, focus on literally that word without actually interrogating the substance or what’s at issue.
“You have Antifa and other related groups that have been burning down cities for the last three years in this county,” he continued.
“We have an invasion on our southern border, we have millions of people crossing our southern border, let’s talk about the substance of why we have to recognize that we’re not in ordinary times.”
When asked if he’d use that language himself, the candidate became defensive.
“I haven’t used that language, you can look at my track record on the campaign trail,” he said, before uttering the phrase moments later.
“You know what’s vermin, what’s running around San Francisco a given day before Gavin Newsom (Democratic California governor) cleaned it up on a dime to roll out the red carpet for Xi Jinping,” he said, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit being held in the city this week.
“This is what’s wrong with the mainstream media,” Mr Ramaswamy added. “Focus on the substance and let’s have an actual policy debate.
“Instead of the policy substance of what’s going on in the country, picking on some word that Donald Trump said on a certain day and asking me for comment on it, give me a break.”
Chris Christie, a 2024 rival, later slammed Mr Ramaswamy for coming to Mr Trump’s defence.
“Any time Donald Trump says something stupid, Vivek’s in there with the broom and the dustpan trying to clean up after it. You would think a guy with a Harvard education would be able to get a better job,” he said on CNN on Thursday.
X users were quick to criticise Mr Ramaswamy’s use of the phrase.
“I am an average American citizen and I am outraged to see a Fascist’s words defended by a so-called Republican. Oh yes, there are problems in the USA but rationalizing the word “vermin” to associate it with “everything Trump thinks is wrong” is …well .. very very wrong,” wrote one person.
And another added: “A cheap imitation of a cheap sandwich board scrawled with fascist slogans and transparent lies.”