President Donald Trump regularly rails against the “Bush Dynasty.” High-profile members of the Bush family and its supporters frequently lacerate Trump over his actions, especially now on his “zero tolerance” policy that is separating children from their families at the southern border. And now Donald Trump Jr. is backing out of a fundraiser for a Bush scion.
But the two divergent factions of the Republican Party still need each other.
Trump’s loyalists in and outside the White House are increasingly suspicious of establishment Republicans working in the White House, especially those who worked in the Bush administrations. As the number of White House aides who worked for the Trump campaign has dwindled in recent weeks, three sources — former campaign and administration officials — said they are more concerned now about the president’s staffing than they were when Trump brought on former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus as his first chief of staff.
The targets for these loyalists include deputy chief of staff for operations Joe Hagin, Trump's new body man Jordan Karem, senior staffer Johnny DeStefano, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. They didn’t all work in the George Bush administrations, or for former Florida governor and Trump-vanquished presidential rival Jeb Bush, but many suspect that their allegiance is to the establishment wing of the party instead of to the president.
“I wish the boss had more Trump originals around him,” said one former Trump campaign staffer.
But those staffers are all top aides whom the president relies on to get practically anything accomplished in his White House. Nielsen, despite regularly being a Trump punching bag, is now the first line of defense for Trump’s new border policy that is the focus of widespread and bipartisan outrage. Hagin — who is reportedly looking to leave his job, potentially for a top spot at the CIA — is a force for stability in the White House and was most recently Trump’s point person in arranging his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Two people close to the administration told BuzzFeed News they think of the director of Oval Office operations, Karem, who spends a lot of time with the president, as a "spy" for Hagin, who worked in the administrations of presidents George W. Bush and H.W. Bush. Karem took over for Johnny McEntee, an early Trump supporter who was well liked, after chief of staff John Kelly fired him when his online gambling posed a problem in his background check.
Karem's defenders reject the criticism against him, pointing out that he was an early supporter of the president during the 2016 election. "There's no one more original than Jordan Karem" when it comes to loyalists, said a senior White House official.
Other loyalists have passed around a campaign-style Hagin–DeStefano logo that reads “Make America Bush Again” as a joke in recent weeks, the Washington Post reported. (DeStefano didn’t work for any of the Bushes and is viewed favorably by many Trump allies, but given his past jobs in Republican politics, he’s seen as an establishment figure.)
Former first lady Laura Bush and Jeb Bush have only stoked the flames with their public condemnations of Trump’s policy that is now separating children from their families at the southern border. “I live in a border state,” Laura Bush wrote in a Sunday op-ed for the Washington Post. “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
Her brother-in-law followed up with a tweet with a similar message.
Responding to Laura Bush’s criticism, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to shift blame onto former president George W. Bush’s administration. “This law was actually signed into effect in 2008 under her husband's leadership, not under this administration,” Sanders said Monday, seemingly referring to legislation addressing unaccompanied minors. “We're not the ones responsible for creating this problem. We've inherited it.”
Bush alum Sally Canfield tweeted the clip of Sanders, adding: “I’m going in the ring.”
But even with that long-running hostility, the Bush family’s political future is staked to Trump.
This year’s Republican primaries have made explicit how vital it is for Republicans running for office to stick with the president if they want any hope at winning his voters in a primary. George P. Bush, Jeb’s oldest son and an elected statewide office holder in Texas, is the member of the Bush family with the clearest shot at a significant political future, and he has fully embraced the president. He won his primary for land commissioner earlier this year with Trump’s endorsement. Just last week, he channeled the president at the Texas Republican Party’s convention, railing against “fake news” and the “liberal media,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
But George P. got some bad news Tuesday when Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr., canceled plans to headline a New York fundraiser for him next week. (The move was first reported by Axios.)
“Don likes George P. personally, but is not going to go out of his way to help someone whose dad seemingly can’t go a week without publicly bashing Don’s dad,” a source close to Don Jr. told BuzzFeed News. “Sadly, Jeb is only relevant when he attacks the president.”
The source added: “The members of the Bush family who are attacking the president are the ones with no future political ambitions, while the one who does have future ambitions has publicly aligned himself with Trump. That tells you everything you need to know about where the power lies in the GOP.”
Trump’s reliance on the Bush diaspora is also built from necessity. The orbit of Trump loyalists is not a big one, and even within that group there’s a reluctance to work in the administration, making it hard to actually act on any distrust between the factions. Bush veterans are scattered about the administration and will continue to be, even as some loyalists try to push out those they view as insufficiently loyal to the president. Some of Trump’s recent foreign policy and national security hires — national security adviser John Bolton and CIA Director Gina Haspel — are even throwbacks to the neocon glory days of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
The Bush family over the years has cultivated major donors who have been opening their checkbooks to back the president and Republicans in the midterms. Trump, with a reelection bid on the horizon, can’t afford to distance himself from such deep-pocketed Bush allies.
A source close to Trump’s 2020 campaign denied to BuzzFeed News last week, before the latest dustups, that having previous experience working for any of the Bushes would disqualify someone from working on the reelection team.
“These are all myths,” the source said.
The same might be true at America First Action super PAC, an outside group that promotes the president and operates with his blessing. But when asked if priority was placed on Trump loyalists when hiring staff, America First Action President Brian O. Walsh emphasized those with strong ties to Trump.
“We look for those who have the experience for the job and the passion for the President at America First Action,” Walsh said. “Whether it be our advisers and former advisers, like Sheriff [David] Clarke, Katrina Pierson, Brad Parscale and Corey Lewandowski; our staff, including Cora Mandy and Curtis Ellis, who worked on the campaign; or Erin Montgomery or myself, who did not; we look for the best people with the balance between professional experience and commitment to the cause.”
Asked if there were any Bush alums on the PAC's staff, Walsh replied that he wasn’t sure because he “never asked.”
And yet for all the talk about Trump insiders being wary of Bush insiders, some Republicans note there are many in the latter camp who — given the Bush family’s milder brand of politics and the insults Trump has hurled their way — have little interest in White House or campaign jobs.
"The idea that there’s a huge amount of Jeb and 43 alumni who want to work there,” said a former senior aide to Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign. “I think there are plenty who are like, ‘Nah, I’m good.’”
Steven Perlberg contributed additional reporting to this story.