President George W. Bush’s former spokesman Ari Fleischer – who was the one to question Bush during a weekend event – pushed back strongly on Monday against media reports that Bush criticized President Barack Obama’s foreign policy on Iran and ISIS.
Bush spoke Saturday night before a closed-door meeting of wealthy donors at a Republican Jewish Coalition summit, offering up how he would handle top foreign policy issues from Iran to ISIS as he fielded questions from Fleischer, who was press secretary at the outset of Bush’s presidency.
The event was closed to the press and supposed to be off the record. But media reports quoting attendees gave the impression that Bush was changing his long-standing policy as ex-president of staying out of the political fray.
While the former president offered a stark contrast to Obama’s foreign policy, he never directly criticized Obama or his policies, Fleischer told CNN. Bush did say, though, that the U.S. should not lift sanctions on Iran, months before Obama hopes to sign a final nuclear deal with Iran that would do just that, Fleischer and another attendee told CNN.
Fleischer, who serves on the Republican Jewish Coalition board, explained that he asked Bush how he would tackle foreign policy if he were still president, but that Bush took pains not to go after Obama directly.
“He never mentioned Obama. He gave direct, blunt answers to the hottest topics of the day involving politics of the Middle East,” Fleischer told CNN.
Media reports on Sunday night suggested that Bush slammed Obama and his foreign policy, which would have been a first for Bush, who faced heavy criticism during his tenure in the Oval Office and has thus far avoided criticizing his successor.
Bush in fact opened his remarks by insisting that he would not criticize Obama, Fleischer said, because he didn’t want to make Obama’s job more difficult by commenting on his policies or lambasting him, a courtesy Bush’s vice president has not afforded Obama (Dick Cheney last month called Obama “the worst president of my lifetime”).
Two donors who were in the room for Bush’s remarks confirmed Fleischer’s account and one said Bush noted the importance of being respectful toward the President and remembering that the U.S. only has one President at a time.
But Bush’s remarks on Iran, Iraq and ISIS set up a stark contrast to Obama’s policies – an implicit critique.
Bush said the U.S. would lose its leverage to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon if it lifted sanctions, according to Fleischer and several attendees who spoke to CNN. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is currently brokering a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program which would give Iran sanctions relief once it complies with the terms of the deal.
And while Obama has often leaned on the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a moderate in Iran, as signs of change in Iran, but Bush said Rouhani is just a new face, reminding the audience that you can’t run for president in Iran without the blessing of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to a source in the room.
Bush also dismissed Rouhani as a spokesman for the ayatollah, and he said all power over decision making is the ayatollah’s, according to Fleischer.
The closest Bush came to directly criticizing Obama was when he quoted Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s criticism of Obama’s decision to pull American troops out of Iraq in late 2011, calling it a “strategic blunder.”
Obama completely withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 without successfully brokering a deal with the Iraqi government to leave a smaller residual force of U.S. troops – a move that has been criticized as creating a vacuum in Iraq and allowing ISIS to gain ground in northern Iraq more easily.
Bush spokesman Freddy Ford declined to directly comment on Bush’s remarks because the event was meant to be off the record.
“The reporting I’ve seen doesn’t particularly match my recollection of what was said,” he said.
Bush also discussed the 2016 presidential campaign, which his brother is expected to enter as one of the leading Republican contenders.
He called his brother Jeb Bush capable and qualified, but acknowledged that he and their shared family name would be a liability in the coming contest, Fleischer said.
Bush noted that Americans don’t like dynasties and called the “Bush” name a “hurdle” or “burden” Jeb would need to overcome, Fleischer recalled.
And that’s why Bush told attendees they won’t “see much of me” on the campaign trail, an attendee told CNN.
Bush also commented on the Democratic frontrunner for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, calling her formidable, but “beatable,” according to Fleischer and an attendee.
CNN’s Sara Murray and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.