At the second GOP primary debate, Donald Trump told Jeb Bush that his brother’s presidency was such a disaster for the Republican brand, even Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have defeated Barack Obama in 2008. It was a nasty little zinger, but one Bush had prepared for.
“As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe,” Bush said, and the Reagan Library exploded with applause.
Of course, Bush’s claim was patently false, as his own next sentence should have made clear: The former Florida governor asked Trump if he remembered the rubble on 9/11. Trump nodded that he did. But Trump also remembered who was president on that day, as Bush, apparently, did not.
As Jonathan Chait noted at the time, even if one doesn’t hold the Bush White House responsible for the 9/11 attacks, it’s bizarre to celebrate an administration for its prevention of mass casualty terror attacks, when said administration failed to prevent the largest such attack in American history. But as commonplace as that reasoning might be among liberal pundits, it was verboten in Republican circles – until this weekend.
On Friday, Trump went on Bloomberg Television and offered the following analysis of the second Bush presidency:
“When you talk about George Bush, I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time,” Trump told anchor Stephanie Ruhle. “He was president, OK? Don’t blame him, or don’t blame him, but he was president. The World Trade Center came down during his reign.”
Jeb quickly came to his brother’s defense over Twitter.
To which “the Donald” replied:
And then, on Fox News Sunday, Trump went nuclear. Asked by Chris Wallace if he "blamed" George W. Bush for 9/11, Trump said that he didn’t — but also suggested that the attacks probably wouldn’t have happened if Bush hadn’t been such a wimp on immigration.
"I would have been much different," Trump said. "I am extremely, extremely tough on illegal immigration. I’m extremely tough on people coming into this country. I believe that if I were running things, I doubt those families would have — I doubt that those people would have been in the country."
“With that being said, I’m not blaming George Bush,” he added.
Trump’s specific line of attack — weakness on illegal immigration probably caused 9/11 — may prove as savvy as it is false. A YouGov poll in late September found that 80 percent of Republican voters approve of George W. Bush’s legacy, while 85 percent say he did "an excellent/good job of keeping the U.S. safe." But while the GOP base remembers Bush-era foreign-policy with fondness, the former president’s support for comprehensive immigration reform is grossly out-of-step with GOP primary voters in 2015. If Trump is going to attack the Bush legacy on counter-terrorism, reminding Republicans of the Bush family’s long history of immigration "weakness" may be the most politically viable angle he’s got.
Of course, as the AP notes, illegal immigration did not cause 9/11. All but one of the 19 hijackers entered the country legally, on business or tourist visas. And the only one whose legal status was in question didn’t sneak across the border — rather, he entered legally with a student visa, then failed to show up for class.