Could Trump’s Attacks on George W. Bush Backfire in South Carolina?
Policy + Politics

Could Trump’s Attacks on George W. Bush Backfire in South Carolina?

Rick Wilking

It might have made more sense if Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had been on stage Saturday night in South Carolina attacking former Republican President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. That fateful move, which many believe destabilized the Middle East, cost a huge loss of U.S. military personnel, treasure and cleared a path for ISIS.

Instead, it was Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump delivering the indictment during a two-hour, nationally televised GOP presidential debate. The billionaire businessman declared – as he has done before -- that the Bush administration lied about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in convincing Congress and the American people to go along with an invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

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“Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump bellowed, as he turned his gaze towards former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is now counting on support from his older brother   to reenergize his struggling campaign for the GOP nomination.

“George Bush made a mistake,” Trump continued. “We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”

An irate Jeb Bush denounced Trump for tormenting him and his family as “blood sport,” adding, “I am sick and tired of him going after my family.”

Trump was at it again on Sunday, saying on ABC News’ This Week that W had made a “horrible mistake and that despite spending $2 trillion on the war and suffering huge casualties “We have nothing to show for it.”

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Trump ducked a question about whether he still thinks that George W. Bush should have been impeached, as he suggested in an interview with CNN in 2008. But he insisted that the invasion of Iraq “started the chain of events that leads now to the migration – maybe the destruction of Europe.”

“He started the war in Iraq,” Trump told host George Stephanopoulos. “Am I supposed to be a big fan? . . . We would have been so much better off if Bush and the rest of them went to the beach and didn’t do anything.”

Trump has taken delight in attacking and belittling Jeb Bush practically from the day he entered the race last June – particularly after Bush finished fourth in the New Hampshire primary last week with 11 percent of the vote after spending $36.1 million in the Granite State.

Clearly, Trump believes he could further humiliate and finish off Bush’s long-shot campaign for the nomination by repeatedly visiting the sins of his famous brother on him in an effort to discredit Jeb’s prowess in foreign policy and national security.

Trump also accused George W. Bush for ignoring warnings from the U.S. intelligence community about a terrorist threat just before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Related: George W. Bush to make first appearance for brother Jeb

Trump’s political instincts have served him well until now – even after his outrageous comments belittling Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain’s distinguished Vietnam War era service because he had been captured and made a prisoner of war. Yet many analysts questioned Trump’s performance Saturday night in Greenville, S.C. They warned that he had taken a big risk in going after a former Republican president who still enjoys widespread support among South Carolina conservatives who don’t necessarily agree with Trump’s assessment of the war.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last May found that 54 percent of Republicans nationally still think the Iraq war was worth fighting, while 41 percent said it was not. Moreover, a January 2007 poll by the newspaper revealed that 83 percent of Republicans thought that Bush had made the country “safer and more secure.” Although Bush left office with a lowly 34 percent approval rating, according to Gallup, a recent poll by Bloomberg pegs his approval rating among Republicans at 77 percent, The Washington Post noted yesterday in questioning whether Trump’s Saturday night performance might backfire on him.

George W. Bush has largely stayed on the sidelines during the early going of the primary campaign, although he has helped raise money and appeared in a radio ad in South Carolina last week offering support for his brother. But the former president is flying to North Charleston tonight for his first joint campaign appearance with Jeb – and he is likely to attract a large crowd.

Jeb Bush has struggled for more than a year in attempting to demonstrate that he is his “own man” when it came to forging a new foreign policy and defense posture, but without criticizing or second-guessing his brother’s handling of the war in Iraq and the Middle East.

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Now, with the fate of his candidacy on the line, Bush will fully embrace his brother tonight in a desperate effort to remain a viable, second tier candidate in the GOP presidential contest. And the help couldn’t come any sooner.  In a new CBS News Battleground Tracker poll released Sunday, Trump continues to lead in South Carolina with 42 percent of Republican voters, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 20 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida with 15 percent, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich with 9 percent. Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson each received just 6 percent support.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in my brother coming,” Jeb Bush told CNN. “And he’s been helpful all along in a lot of different ways. Giving me advice and helping me to raise money. Doing all sorts of things. But this is the appropriate time for him to do something he has not done before. This is the right time, when it’s important and when people are watching.”

“My brother will help a lot,” Bush added. “The point is, is he a popular Republican? You bet he is.”