Donald Trump is far ahead in South Carolina, holding a double digit lead over Ted Cruz. So last night’s debate wasn’t as important to him as it was for other candidates.
All Trump had to do was lay low and absorb the insults and attacks of others, while steering clear of controversial topics. He would emerge bruised but still in great shape to win the vote next Saturday.
But Donald Trump is not one to play it safe, nor allow a criticism to go unanswered. Once again, The Donald defied conventional political wisdom and will probably be stronger for it.
Trump landed on the third rail of Republican politics when he criticized George Bush for 9/11.
“The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that,” Trump said to the former Florida governor.
Trump went back to the line of attack moments later, after Marco Rubio also defended George W. Bush’s record, saying he was grateful it was not Al Gore in the White House on 9/11.
“The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe, Marco. That is not safe,” he continued. “The world Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton [didn’t] kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him. And George Bush– by the way, George Bush had the chance, also, and he didn’t listen to the advice of his C.I.A.”
“How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center…excuse me, I lost hundreds of friends!” Trump said as the crowd booed loudly.
Jeb Bush, who is slated to campaign with his brother on Monday in South Carolina, shot back earlier in the conversation that he was “sick and tired of [Trump] going after my family.”
“While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe,” he said. “I’m proud of what he did.”
Trump interrupted with the 9-11-related attack, and the room booed.
For more than a decade, it has been de rigueur for Republicans to defend President Bush from the kind of attack Trump launched. A Republican couldn’t even hint that Bush was responsible for 9/11 without being accused of parroting the sort of attacks that Moveon.org and Code Pink launched against the former president.
But then Trump took the attack one step farther:
“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake, all right?” Trump said. “We spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world.”
“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.”
And finally: “They lied,” Trump said of the Bush administration. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”
It’s not the first time Trump has said such things. But he was taking a risk, calculated or not, on saying them in South Carolina. George W. Bush remains popular among state Republicans. Perhaps that does not mean everything Bush did remains equally popular, but slamming the Republican former president so hard is a significant gamble for Trump.
For the record, two separate investigative bodies – the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – both concluded that the Bush administration did not lie about WMD in Iraq. They were wrong, but they didn’t mislead anyone deliberately.
Other than that, calling the Iraq War a “mistake” seems a reasonable conclusion in hindsight — something unavailable to American policy makers before we invaded. But what about the war “destabilizing” the Middle East? I hardly think the so-called “Arab Spring” was inspired by our invasion of Iraq, and given the chaos that has been the fallout of the insurrections in most Middle Eastern countries, it’s faintly ridiculous to blame our invasion for destabilizing what was already a chaotic region of the world anyway.
Totally rejecting Republican talking points on Iraq and President Bush may seem like political suicide. But with Trump, such criticisms play directly to his strengths: independent, unafraid to offend anyone, and a pugnacious personality.
I don’t think those observations will hurt Trump one bit with his core constituency.