Election 2016

Bad Blood Between Jeb and Trump Erupts at GOP Debate

Frontrunner goes after former Florida governor on brother, Iraq and 9/11

The rancour between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush exploded on the debate stage on Saturday, as the two traded insults over the legacy of George W Bush’s fateful decision to invade Iraq.

Trump and Bush’s fiery exchanges – which dominated a debate that began with tributes to supreme court justice Antonin Scalia, who died earlier in the day – were as personal and vicious as any moment so far in the 2016 presidential election. The Republican frontrunner ferociously challenged the Bush family legacy and GOP orthodoxy on foreign policy.

At the end of one clash, Ohio governor John Kasich was left slack-jawed.

“This is just crazy,” he said.

In the spin room afterwards, J Hogan Gidley, a former Huckabee and Santorum adviser, said he had never seen anything like it: “You get a zinger now and again but nothing like this. You never see a candidate call another a flat out liar.”

On a night of Republican bloodletting that also saw Ted Cruz condemned as just that – a liar – the back and forth between Trump and Bush focused on national security and, in particular, the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It came two days before George W Bush is set to campaign at his brother’s side in South Carolina, where Republicans vote on Saturday.

Trump openly accused the Bush administration of knowingly lying about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify an invasion of Iraq in 2003, a step beyond anything that most Democrats, let alone any Republican, have said.

“Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake, all right?” Trump said at the debate in Greenville, South Carolina. “George Bush made a mistake, we can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty.”

He added, forcefully: “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction – there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”

Bush fired back, showing his most fight in any debate yet.

“I am sick and tired of him going after my family,” he said. “While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe and I’m proud of what he did.”

The two men even squabbled about Bush’s mother. The former Florida governor said proudly, “My mother was the strongest person I know.”

Trump’s response: “Maybe she should be running.”

All the while, Trump was lustily booed by the audience.

Trump has long bragged about being against the Iraq war. No clear statement from 2003 has ever been published.

Eventually, Marco Rubio jumped into the scrum in defense of George W Bush but Trump fired back: “I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush.”

Rubio’s response was to cast blame for 9/11 on Bill Clinton’s failure to kill Osama bin Laden during his administration.

The pair clashed again over immigration. Trump said Bush’s policy was the least effective of any candidate on stage.

“He is so weak on illegal immigration, it’s laughable,” he said.

Bush responded that Trump has shown weakness during the campaign when he disparaged women, Latinos, people with disabilities, and the senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain.

But Trump wasn’t finished. In a bizarre riposte, he said: “Two days ago he said he would take his pants off and moon everybody.” Bush pulled a puzzled face at that one, a reference to a comment the former Florida governor made to the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser.

Afterwards, Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, suggested jokingly that Bush had been more spirited than usual because “he had a Monster [Energy Drink] on the way in”.

He then simply said Bush “has to do something because he’s becoming very desperate”.
The Trump operative spoke with visible scorn. “You know why he’s doing poorly,” he asked. “Because his message is terrible, people don’t want another Bush in this country. That’s the bottom line. They don’t want another politician.”

In contrast, he said, “we talked about the things the American people talked around their dinner table. I think it’s very clear Mr Trump’s positions don’t change based on polling numbers and he talks about it just like you would with your family.”

Former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, a Bush supporter, said Trump was “out of control.” He told the Guardian Trump “crosses the line a lot but at a certain point of [the] line, the idea that Bush is responsible for 9/11, that’s conspiracy stuff, that’s fringe stuff.”

David Smith is the Guardian's Washington correspondent.

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