WASHINGTON — The White House on Saturday disparaged the legacies of the only two living Republican presidents to precede Donald Trump, after reports that both men castigated Trump in interviews last year and refused to vote for him.
Former President George H.W. Bush mocked then-candidate Trump as a “blowhard” and voted for a Democratic candidate, while the younger Bush worried aloud that Trump would destroy the idea of a Republican president in all but name, according to “The Last Republicans,” which is scheduled to go on sale later this month.
The White House responded after quotes from the book were published on Saturday, entering an extraordinary war of words involving three presidents from the same party.
“If one Presidential candidate can disassemble a political party, it speaks volumes about how strong a legacy its past two presidents really had,” the White House wrote to CNN. It called the younger Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq “one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in American history.”
The book’s author, Mark Updegrove, interviewed the Bushes last year — long before Trump’s inauguration — and found neither wanted to see what they described as a coarse, populist campaigner become president.
“I don’t like him,” George H.W. Bush told Updegrove before the election, according to the book. “I don’t know much about him, but I know he’s a blowhard. And I’m not too excited about him being [our] leader.”
A month earlier, Trump had famously cited himself as his own best foreign policy adviser. “Because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” said the candidate, who had no diplomatic or military experience.
Upon learning this, Updegrove wrote, George W. Bush thought to himself: “Wow, this guy really doesn’t understand the job of president.”
Those comments came as Trump neared the Republican nomination for president, having vanquished most other contenders, including another member of the Bush family, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whom Trump repeatedly mocked as “low energy.”
George W. Bush didn’t expect Trump to win the general election, Updegrove told CNN in an interview about the book.
“When Trump started to rise, I think he became concerned because he saw this populism of Donald Trump getting in the way of America’s position in the world,” Updegrove said.
As he watched Trump’s campaign, the younger Bush feared he — Bush — would “be the last Republican president,” said the author, who founded the National Medal of Honor Museum this year, after several years as director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum.
“And it wasn’t just about Hillary Clinton becoming president,” he said. “It was because Donald Trump represented everything that the Bushes abhorred.”
Trump stood for rudeness, international isolationism and weak leadership in the eyes of the Bushes, according to Updegrove — reservations echoed by many establishment Republicans. In October, George W. Bush gave a speech in which he didn’t mention Trump but lamented these same vices — and politics that “seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
But Trump, who has made more than 1,300 false or misleading claims in less than a year and almost constantly insults his many rivals, did win the presidency.
It is rare in the modern political era to see former presidents to openly criticize their successors.
But “this is all different with Donald Trump,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
“It allows us to understand how much a renegade Trump is in the Republican Party,” he said. “Trump represents the outsider, and the Bush family are quintessential insiders.”
The Bushes have despised Trump for decades, Brinkley said, citing reports that the elder Bush snubbed Trump as his running mate in the 1992 election.
Trump had his turn in 2016, when he ridiculed Jeb Bush out of the race and campaigned against George W. Bush’s decision to wage war in Iraq.
“No Democrat has criticized the war in Iraq with as much anger as Donald Trump,” Brinkley said. “How can George W. Bush resurrect his post-presidency career when the sitting president is telling everyone every day how awful he is?”
So the historian wasn’t surprised to see Trump’s old campaign feuds embroil his White House in 2017, though he had to think back more than half a century to cite a comparable example. (President Truman once said soon-to-be-president Eisenhower knew no more about politics “than a pig knows about Sunday.”)
And not only did the Bush presidents lament the prospect of a Trump presidency in 2016, Updegrove wrote that they also shunned their party’s nominee on Election Day.
“I voted ‘None of the Above’ for president,” the younger Bush told the author, according to his book.
The elder Bush said he voted for Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton, a Democrat.
In a statement, Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not repeat the White House’s direct attacks on the Bush legacies from earlier in the day. But, she wrote, if voters “were interested in continuing decades of costly mistakes, another establishment politician more concerned with putting politics over people would have won.”
A Bush family spokesman answered questions about Updegrove’s book and the White House statement with a simple reply: “No comment, but thanks.”