Jeb Bush on Thursday sought to distance himself from former Secretary of State James Baker, one of his foreign policy advisers, saying in a closed-door meeting that he doesn’t believe Baker should have recently addressed the liberal-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street. He also pledged that his foreign policy team will also consist of younger experts, according to two attendees.
Bush, a former Florida governor and likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, was asked about Baker’s March J Street appearance during a question-and-answer session at a “meet and greet” hosted by the Manhattan Republican Party.
Baker made waves with controversial comments that were strongly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bush has come under fire from conservatives since then for not denouncing Baker’s remarks or his appearance before the group. Baker was secretary of state under former President George H.W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s father.
According to the two sources in the room, Bush – in a light-hearted tone – remarked that people like Baker and George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, were over 85 years old, drawing some laughter from the audience. Bush went on to emphasize that he plans to surround himself with foreign policy advisers who are from a different generation than those who served in previous administrations.
Bush’s latest remarks represent a striking example of the ways he has sought to distance himself from the policies of his father as well as his brother, former President George W. Bush, as he explores a path to the White House.
At Thursday’s event, Bush also said that he disagreed with some of the conclusions in Baker’s J Street speech. Bush he added that he believed that Baker’s remarks weren’t anti-Israel and that Baker is a supporter and friend of the country.
“The point he was making is that some of the complexities of the modern world are different from the mindset they were dealing with 25 years ago,” Bob Turner, chairman of the Queens Republican Party, who attended the Thursday morning event, told CNN.
Turner, a former congressman who was elected in part because of his strongly hawkish views on Israel, and two other attendees who spoke to CNN anonymously, emphasized that Bush did not speak disparagingly of Baker. Bush repeatedly told the crowd that he had great respect for Baker.
A Bush spokesperson confirmed the former governor’s remarks at Thursday’s event.
After Baker’s J Street speech, Bush came under pressure from prominent conservatives – including Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson – who wanted Bush to strongly speak out against Baker’s comments.
Baker recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that he will be “working hard for Jeb Bush.”
“I think he’s clearly the cream of the crop of the Republicans who are going to run for the nomination,” he said.