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 president, 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 his new 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 September, 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 openly criticize their successors.
But “this is all different with Donald Trump,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.
“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, although he had to think back more than a half-century to cite a comparable example. (President Harry S. Truman once said soon-to-be-president Dwight D. 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 to The Washington Post, 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.”
Other presidents, other Trump spats
The three other living ex-presidents — all Democrats — have expressed their own issues with Trump since he launched his campaign, and in some cases continuing into his presidency.
While still president, Barack Obama made his opinion clear not long before Election Day, in a campaign speech for Clinton.
“This is somebody who vilifies minorities, vilifies immigrants, vilifies people of Muslim faith, makes fun of Americans with disabilities,” Obama said. (He didn't mention that Trump had also been going after him for years.)
“Do you want somebody to be your voice who on tape brags about how being famous allows him to get away with sexual assault?” Obama asked the crowd. “Who calls women 'pigs,' or 'dogs,' or 'slobs' and grades them on a scale of one to 10?”
When Trump won the election, Obama's tone quickly changed.
He urged the country to put aside political differences and root for the new president's success, and left Trump a nice handwritten letter, wishing him “the very best as you embark on this great adventure” and offering what help he could give.
The truce didn't last long. Not two months into his presidency, Trump made baseless accusations that Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower during the election. And Obama regularly attacks Trump administration policies — if not the man himself.
“It's certainly frustrating that we have to mobilize every couple of months to keep our leaders from inflicting real human suffering on our constituents,” he said at a fundraiser in September, as he fought Trump's effort to repeal his administration's health-care policies.
Trump doesn't appear to be any chummier with former president Bill Clinton, whose wife he defeated in the 2016 race. Clinton and Trump were in a public spat as recently as December — each accusing the other of general ignorance.
Of all the former presidents, the one Trump once called “the worst President in the history of the United States” has lately been kindest to him.
In an interview with the New York Times last month, Jimmy Carter accused the news media of being “harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I've known about.” He said if the United States had receded as a global leader under President Trump, it had already been doing so for many years.
Carter even said he'd offered his services to the Trump administration.
But as the Times wrote, the ex-president had harsher words for another successor, Obama, perhaps signaling one way or another, the era of presidential friendliness is over.
This article has been updated. Phillip Rucker contributed reporting to this story.