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Obama to GOP candidates: You can't handle debate moderators. How will you take on Putin?

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

At a New York City fundraiser Monday night, President Obama poked fun at Republican candidates' outrage over last week's CNBC debate — pointing out that they've been complaining about tough debate questions even though they love to brag about how much more easily they'd handle Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here's what he said:

"Have you noticed that every one of these candidates say, ‘Obama's weak. Putin's kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he's gonna straighten out. Just lookin' at him, he's gonna be...' [trails off]

"And then it turns out they can't handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at a debate! [wild cheers]

"I mean, let me tell you, if you can't handle those guys, you know, then I don't think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you."

The controversy over CNBC's debate has raged for days now. There are differing views on whether the moderators' questions were truly out of line — for instance, Vox's Ezra Klein argued Tuesday morning that CNBC's debate questions weren't actually more hostile to individual candidates than those presented at the Fox News GOP debate, yet they were different, because they were "framed as if they came from a critic of the sponsoring party." Meanwhile, the Federalist's Ben Domenech called it "worse than any debate I've seen in my lifetime," full of "unserious questions" and "pathetic gotcha attempts."

So far, the Republican National Committee has suspended a scheduled debate that was to be hosted by NBC and Telemundo in February, and the candidates have been trying to unite and demand changes to the debate process overall. But that latter effort began to fall apart Monday afternoon, as Donald Trump and three other candidates refused to sign on to the group's proposed demands.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media,'s parent company.