Without naming Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, former President George W. Bush delivered an incisive critique of his policies of “isolationism, nativism and protectionism” at a private fundraiser in Cincinnati on Tuesday for Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, according to four people who attended.
Mr. Trump has broken with GOP orthodoxy and pushed an “America First” platform that calls for renegotiating trade deals, reconsidering longstanding military alliances, and curbing immigration by Muslims and people from countries beset with terrorism. He has repeatedly denounced Mr. Bush for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, though he never publicly opposed the war before it began.
Mr. Bush told the crowd of about 400 people that he had been reflecting on threats against American exceptionalism, though he didn’t put his remarks in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Bush spoke for 20 minutes in the Diamond Club of the Cincinnati Reds baseball stadium and spent another 40 minutes answering a half-dozen questions.
“It was an interesting exercise of statecraft,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state. “No one could say he directly spoke in attack mode against Donald Trump. Neither could anybody miss the fact that he thought there were some cutting-edge issues that Trump is advancing that need to be scrutinized and debated.”
Freddy Ford, a spokesman for Mr. Bush, declined to comment on the former president’s remarks. A spokesman for Sen. Portman, Michawn Rich said, “We are honored to have President George W. Bush in Ohio to help us raise well over $1 million in a single day.”
The Cincinnati event was one of two fundraisers Mr. Bush appeared at Tuesday for the Ohio senator, who served as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget in his administration. The former president also spoke to Portman donors in Cleveland.
The absence of Mr. Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, from the GOP convention earlier this month was one of the starkest signs of the divide between the 2016 nominee and the political establishment. The younger Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, ran against Mr. Trump in the GOP primary and has withheld an endorsement.
People at the fundraiser recalled that the former president said that Islamic women should come to the U.S. to experience a free society so they can lead the charge for equality in the Middle East. “He said everyone wants to be free,” said U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Cincinnati. “He really touched everyone in the room.”
Asked about the future of the Republican Party, Mr. Bush said, “As long as everyone feels welcome, I think we’ll succeed,” according to Mr. Wenstrup.
Mr. Bush also stressed to Mr. Portman’s donors that the institution of the presidency was more important than the occupant of the White House. Criticizing President Obama, he said, would demean the institution. Even in troubled times, “we’re lucky because we’ll always have the presidency,” Mr. Bush said, according to one attendee.