On the surface, former president George W. Bush’s comments about Donald Trump on the Today Show Monday morning were hardly inflammatory — not aggressive enough to put him anywhere near the Republican Party’s Never Trumpers, let alone anything resembling a resistance. But Bush did come closer than ever to expressing the discomfort with Trump and Trumpism that insiders say he’s felt privately for some time.
According to former officials in his administration, Bush has long been uneasy about the growing strains of nativism, tribalism, and isolationism in his party. Those trends have troubled him as far back as his failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in his second term, and extended into the Sarah Palin phenomenon in 2008 and candidate Trump’s comments on Mexican and Muslim immigrants. A former senior Bush official told The Outline that these were some of the factors made Bush unable to stomach voting for Trump in November — and nothing Trump has recently done has altered Bush’s worldview on the matter.
Bush has long been uneasy about the growing strains of nativism, tribalism, and isolationism in his party
Another former administration official said that while he was not surprised that Bush was troubled by Trump, he did not expect him to speak publicly, because of a deep aversion to ever commenting on a successor.
“He's had a longstanding explicit policy of not commenting on the current president,” the official said. “He felt it when he was president — he thought the job was hard enough without the particularly powerful and attention-grabbing criticism of a predecessor. He's been so explicit about this, it feels like something of a red line.”
So why did Bush weigh in Monday, however moderately? One person close to the former president noted that he was still not seeking out opportunities to comment on current events, and would not have appeared in the media at all if not to discuss his new book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.
But Bush figured he would be asked about Trump on the Today Show, and was willing to express views markedly different from those put forth by the current administration. Considering his desire to remain far from the news cycle since leaving office, this was a significant step. A few takeaways from his appearance:
- He told Matt Lauer that a free press was “indispensable to democracy... We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power."
- Bush also took a strikingly different tone from Trump on questions of Russian interference in the November election. Far from casting the issue as Democratic sour grapes or fake news, as Trump has, Bush said, “I think we all need answers. I’m not sure the right avenue to take. I am sure, though, that that question needs to be answered."
- Folks who know Bush like to point out his “Islam is peace” speech in September 2001 as a contrast to Trump’s tone on Islam and immigration. On Monday, Lauer pressed Bush on whether he agreed with Trump’s ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. “I am for an immigration policy that is welcoming and upholds the law,” Bush said.
That is hardly a controversial statement, and it doesn’t make Bush a hero or leader on the issue. But was it a tiny little window into one Republican president’s distaste for another, a mere five weeks into the new administration? Talking to people in the know, it sure sounds like it, and it also sounds like a new dynamic to watch over the next four years.