“I think there was fraud and irregularity; I just don’t think it was in a sum that would have overturned the election result,” Bush says in a new interview with the Texas Tribune. Asked whether he was saying the election wasn’t stolen, as former president Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed, Bush responded: “Correct.”
But in the same interview, Bush assured that if Trump ran in 2024, he would support him — and not just if Trump became the GOP nominee, but also in the primary.
The GOP’s evolving responses to Trump’s continued claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate can be a little dizzying, but just think about what these two positions entail. Bush is saying Trump’s claims of a stolen election are not just unproven but also baseless. Yet, despite Trump continuing to make them — a campaign that can’t help but undermine democracy in the process — Bush still assures that this man is worthy of his support.
Bush has long provided one of the most interesting case studies on the GOP’s Trump question. That’s given the tension between his family’s opposition to Trump — and Trump’s attacks on his father, Jeb Bush, and even his mother — and Bush’s clear ambition to rise through the ranks in a party still dominated by Trump. But he’s not the only Republican increasingly striking this uneasy balance.
While much of the coverage of that balance has focused on how pained Republicans are to dissociate themselves with Trump’s claims, the tortuousness also works in the opposite direction. The biggest story might be how little they are doing to distance themselves, but its not-insignificant cousin is how much even the careful distancing some of them are doing makes continuing to support Trump look rather irreconcilable. How do you effectively say this guy is spouting nonsense about an American election being illegitimate and then also say this is the man the country (and your party) should follow?
That duality was on display last week with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). McCarthy has justified Rep. Liz Cheney’s excommunication from GOP leadership for criticizing Trump by arguing that the Wyoming Republican was too focused on the past. “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election,” McCarthy said. “I think that is all over with.”
That claim was, of course, very false. It was bookended by Trump himself doing the same thing McCarthy assured that nobody was doing. Trump just the day before cited “an election rigged and stolen from us.” By the end of the weekend, he had again cited a stolen election and even promoted a poll showing that two-thirds of Republicans did indeed say the 2020 election was illegitimate.
But let’s set aside that bogus claim for a moment. McCarthy was saying Biden’s legitimacy wasn’t even in question. Yet the California Republican is still aligning his party with the guy who is saying precisely that. At some point, even that gentle distancing can’t help but imply that Trump’s claims are utterly without merit — just as Bush indicated they were.
This is apparently the GOP’s new talking point: dismiss the legitimacy questions in the name of moving on, but also stress that Trump is the party’s leader and maybe there are some other valid questions about the election. (That, after all, is important to the GOP’s push for voting restrictions in state legislatures, which have been predicated on concerns about election security.)
House Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks (Ind.) offered a response similar to Bush’s, saying that Biden was legitimate but that questions must be asked about elections. So did the No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), who said, “Once the electors are counted, yes, he’s the legitimate president.”
This isn’t to praise their fence-straddling posture. They are clearly trying to have it both ways on Trump, and that should always be noted. Republicans have been doing this for a long time, not actually echoing Trump’s baseless claims of massive fraud but raising other concerns. That provided both the appearance of supporting him and the plausible deniability of not actually vouching for his routinely ridiculous and debunked claims.
But even straddling that fence leaves something on the other side. There has been remarkably little actual vouching for Trump’s specific claims — and conspicuously and increasingly so — to the point where it’s clear they know how nonsensical and indefensible all of it is. And that’s a vitally important part of all of this. They are treating him, as they did for much of his presidency, as the “crazy uncle” who just says a bunch of stuff that they don’t feel the need to actually account for and whose rantings they just wave away like so many insignificant rantings of a Twitter troll.
Perhaps that made sense when it came to some less-important issues and personal squabbles, but this is the legitimacy of an American election and an electoral system we’re talking about here. It’s a fundamental issue when it comes to the stability of our democracy.
To imply repeatedly — however gently — that Trump is just making stuff up about our elections and then to, in the same breath, assure he’s the man to lead your party moving forward is a pretty remarkable contortion, even by the standards set in the Trump-era GOP.