The CIA’s concealed detention and torture program has left many Republicans on the precipice of declaring presidential bids speechless, but for Jeb Bush – his silence speaks volumes.
Conservative leaders, typically quick to doll out strong opinions, tread lightly this week, seemingly wary of coming out too strongly in favor – or against – revelations that American interrogators used harsh techniques on more than a hundred detainees.
For the younger Bush, it’s a pivotal moment. Poised to announce whether he’ll run for president early next year, Jeb must first figure out how he’s going to settle his own views with those of his presidential kin, particularly on explosive issues like this one.
“It’s going to take a tremendous amount of soul searching,” Republican political consultant Juleanna Glover told msnbc, to figure out how to handle his family’s legacy “in a way that neither debilitates his ability to run and win and neither creates enormous waves in his family that are intolerable.”
The torture report highlights some of the worst parts of George W. Bush’s legacy – both the brutal, poorly executed war on terror and a president in the dark on its details for years – and how the younger Bush handles it will likely set the tone for the rest of his campaign, should he decide to run.
He’ll “probably say as little as possible,” GOP strategist John Feheery told msnbc. “Jeb has to distinguish himself from his brother and the best way to do that is to not get in the habit of defending his brother’s record.”
A source close to the former governor told msnbc he doesn’t have any interviews scheduled for the rest of the month; his next public appearance is a commencement speech at the University of South Carolina on Monday, but it isn’t expected to be political.
Still, there are hints that the younger Bush is getting ready to run: he’s been meeting with wealthy donors, campaigning for other candidates, and polling well in his home state; another Bush brother, Neil, recently told Bloomberg that their mother had “come around” and wasn’t against another Bush president, something she famously said months ago.
Glover, who served on the staffs of the elder Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, said she doesn’t expect Jeb to struggle to differentiate himself if he runs. “When anyone brings his brother up, he’s going to say, ‘look, that’s not me, I’m an eight-year governor, let’s talk about my record,’” she said. “He’s a very supple candidate.”
But even potential 2016 Republican candidates without Bush blood are wary of addressing the report’s findings that the CIA deliberately mislead the White House, Congress and the American People in its interrogation methods. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Rand Paul, both of Wisconsin, haven’t yet made public remarks and their spokesman did not respond to msnbc inquiries. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey told a reporter he wouldn’t comment until he was briefed.
On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Perry, who succeeded George W. Bush as the governor in Texas – during an exclusive MSNBC interview – punted questions on whether the former president went too far, saying “history will be a good teacher for us.” Perry spoke hesitantly: He didn’t have a problem releasing information – but “why now?” – and George Washington taught us to treat prisoners well – but remember that pile of rubble after 9/11.
“Everyone’s learned from candidate Barack Obama, who professed from on high [that he wanted to close Guantanamo],” former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told msnbc. “Then you get the intelligence briefing and…seven years later, it’s still open.”
He continued: “Ted Cruz is probably going to swing from that vine a bit and make some noise, not so much Rand Paul. Guys like Jeb Bush and other governors will probably have a different tone. They’re evaluating and assessing what this is and what the noise is – what are people saying – before they say anything.”
Indeed, Cruz took a stand against torture Tuesday evening, amid two paragraphs about how awful he believes the Democrats are.
“Within 48 hours, President Obama has set Guantanamo Bay detainees free, and Senate Democrats have endangered Americans all over the world by releasing classified tactics, which have since rightly been outlawed, used by the intelligence community in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” Cruz said in a statement “After six years, enough with saying ‘everything is George W. Bush’s fault.’ It’s sad that, with all the threats we face across the globe, Senate Democrats are still more interested in scoring political points against the Bush Administration than in working together to keep America safe and our military strong.”
Sen. Rand Paul – someone who has spoken out against waterboarding as torture before – declined to weigh in on how the report reflected on the former president, giving a cautious statement to Politico when caught outside his Senate office.
“It’s important that people take a stand and representatives take a stand on whether they believe torture should be allowed. I think we should not have torture,” Paul said. “Transparency is mostly good for government. The only thing I would question is whether or not the actual details, the gruesomeness of the details, will be beneficial or inflammatory.”
Like Cruz, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio weighed in with one of the strongest responses, in a joint statement with Idaho’s Sen. Jim Risch, calling the release of the report “reckless and irresponsible” and demanding a more current detention and interrogation policy.
“As a nation at war, we need a coherent detention and interrogation policy in order to extract valuable intelligence about terrorist networks from captured operatives. The Obama Administration has no detention policy, and it has hindered U.S. efforts to fight terrorism globally,” they said. Rubio later told reporters he didn’t support brutal interrogation methods, however.
Dr. Ben Carson – who has been remarking on nearly everything in the last two weeks as he works to build momentum (he wrote an Op-Ed Wednesday about Obamacare) – hasn’t spoken out on the report yet. His spokesman did not respond to an inquiry either.
Republicans aren’t alone in their caution. While Democrats widely support President Obama’s ban on the torture and interrogation program his successor had built and their differences stem from whether the Justice Department should prosecute those who tortured detainees, many of the likely 2016 candidates – including Hillary – have also remained quiet.
Jesse Rodriguez and Kasie Hunt contributed reporting to this story.