Washington (AFP) - Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has triggered a firestorm with an unflinching verbal assault on Barack Obama, saying the US president does not "love" America.
Republican Giuliani made the remarks late Wednesday at a private group dinner that included Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is considering a 2016 presidential run.
"I do not believe -- and I know this is a horrible thing to say -- but I do not believe that the president loves America," Giuliani said at the New York dinner, according to Politico.
"He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."
The White House condemned the remarks, agreeing with Giuliani that "it was a horrible thing to say."
"He seems embarrassed enough to do damage control this morning, so I'm not going to pile on from here," said White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz.
But Giuliani's comments sparked fury from Obama's Democratic Party, which blasted his remarks as "outrageous."
Giuliani served as mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001 and shepherded the city through the September 11 attacks, earning a reputation as "America's mayor" in some circles.
Giuliani criticized Obama's position on battling Islamist extremism, arguing that the president has downplayed the jihadist threat and refuses to "stand up and say there's a part of Islam that's sick."
With Obama the son of a Kenyan father and American mother, critics in the past have questioned his citizenship and religion.
But Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the comments by Giuliani, a one-time presidential candidate, went beyond the pale.
"I rarely agreed with president (George W.) Bush, but I never questioned his love for our country," she told a gathering of Democratic lawmakers.
Wasserman Schultz noted that Giuliani reportedly made his comments with Walker a few chairs away, and that Walker "didn't say a word."
"Is this what it's really come to?" she asked.
"If the Republican Party really wants to be taken seriously... really wants to avoid its problems of the past... now is the time for its leaders to stop this kind of nonsense. Enough."
Giuliani sought to clarify his remarks Thursday.
"I'm not questioning his patriotism -- he's a patriot I'm sure," he told Fox News.
"What I'm saying is that in his rhetoric, I very rarely hear him say the things that I used to hear Ronald Reagan (and) Bill Clinton say, about how much he loves America," he said, referring to two former US presidents.
"It sounds like he's more of a critic than he is a supporter," Giuliani added.