Kudos to Donald Trump for performing a valuable public service. I kid you not.
Finally, a top-tier presidential candidate is publicly assailing the sainted axiom that George W. Bush kept us safe. Granted, Trump is an interloper and a demagogue, but, much like a stopped clock that’s accurate twice a day, he does occasionally score a bullseye. He’s doing it now by dredging up 9/11.
Jeb Bush actually started this fight when he trotted out the George W. Bush “Kept Us Safe” chant during the GOP debate back in September. Trump, who has a shark’s nose for blood, instantly swooped in. And he’s still chomping.
“If you look at it, Jeb, during the debate said, ‘My brother kept us safe,’ and I said to myself I didn’t want to embarrass him that night, but I said to myself, well, wait a minute, he kept us safe?” Trump said on Monday on Fox and Friends, capping a week where he repeatedly question the party mantra.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, the two candidates are giving each other noogies in the schoolyard. Jeb is calling Trump “pathetic.” Trump is saying, “No, Jeb Bush, you’re pathetic.” Ronald Reagan, who popularized the notion that no Republican should speak ill of another, must be spinning in his grave.
But Trump is actually raising a valid point about W. In his scattershot way, Trump doesn’t specifically blame W for 9/11. That would be impossible to prove. But lest we forget (as indeed we have), the public record is replete with evidence that W and his top advisers were insufficiently vigilant and failed to heed the dire warnings of impending doom. W’s top counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, testified in 2004 that “although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don’t think it was ever treated that way.”
Clarke - who had previously worked for Ronald Reagan and Bush I - launched his warnings about Osama bin Laden as soon as W took office. It took him three months to get a high-level meeting. That’s when neocon Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy Defense secretary, told Clarke, “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about one man, bin Laden.”
Clarke was subsequently (and predictably) slimed by the Bush team and its conservative media acolytes, but it is now settled fact, as unearthed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Barton Gellman, that the CIA had tried, pre-9/11, to discuss al Qaeda with President Bush 36 times. The CIA reportedly rang the bell about bin Laden’s imminent intentions in its Daily Brief on May 1 (“a group presently in the United States” is preparing an attack), on June 22 (an attack might be “imminent”), on June 29, on June 30 (“Bin Laden Threats Are Real”), on July 1 (a domestic attack “will occur soon”), in a meeting with Condoleezza Rice on July 10, in a warning on July 11, in its Daily Brief on July 24.
Then, and only then, came the famous Aug. 6 CIA brief, entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the U.S.,” which warned of a possible attack in New York, perhaps with hijacked airplanes. A CIA briefier flew to Texas to personally alert Jeb’s vacationing brother - who reportedly responded with my favorite W gem of all time: “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.”
Establishment Republicans, led by Jeb, are outraged that Trump has dared to malign the “Kept Us Safe” mantra. But look at the aforementioned evidence. As ex-counterterrorism chief Clarke has said, “There was a chance” to thwart 9/11, if only W’s top people had gone on high alert, but they “didn’t take it.”
Imagine if a 9/11-style attack had occurred on Barack Obama’s watch, and it later turned out that he had been warned by the CIA 36 times, and that he had told a briefer, “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.” We know what would happen next. Republicans would be citing it as proof that Obama coddles terrorists and hates America. And they’d be clamoring for impeachment.
In fact, isn’t Jeb suggesting that Hillary Clinton should be held responsible for Benghazi? How come she’s potentially responsible for four deaths on Obama’s watch - while Jeb’s brother is supposedly blameless for 3,000 deaths on his watch? Sounds like valid grist for a fresh round of Trump tweets. He’s truly the Republican establishment’s worst nightmare.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org