Donald Trump was eager to end his fight with Pope Francis – but he wanted a bigger piece of George W. Bush.
The Republican presidential front-runner swatted away a report that he’d supported the Iraq war in September 2002 and tore into the last GOP president, asserting that he only went to war to finish George H.W. Bush’s business.
Jeb Bush offered a much sunnier take on the Bush family, and John Kasich urged Americans to “slow down” in life during the second night of CNN’s Republican town hall, just two days away from South Carolina’s primary.
Here are five takeaways from the town hall:
Trump vs. W., Round 2
Trump didn’t outright accuse George W. Bush of lying his way into the Iraq war – “I don’t know what he did,” the real estate mogul said – but he got close.
Oran Smith, a prominent evangelical leader in South Carolina, pressed Trump to take back his attack on the 43rd president from the last Republican presidential debate.
But Trump wouldn’t give an inch, attacking Bush for going to war with a country that wasn’t involved in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
He even offered his own theory on why Bush pressed for war, “whether he lied or not.”
“I think the son, being loyal to the father, I think he really wanted to go into Iraq, even if it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Trump said.
Pressed again on whether Bush lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, Trump said: “I would probably say that something was going on. I don’t know why he went in. I don’t know why he went in – because honestly, there was no reason to go in. They did not knock down the World Trade Center. Iraq did not knock it down.”
His comments came at the same time a BuzzFeed article that highlighted Trump’s 2002 comments supporting the war on Howard Stern’s radio show was gaining attention on social media.
Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about that interview, Trump simply dismissed it, saying that “I wasn’t a politician” and it was probably the first time he was asked about the subject.
“I could have said that. Nobody asked me – I wasn’t a politician. It was probably the first time anybody asked me that question,” Trump said. “But by the time the war started, I was against the war, and there are articles – I mean, there are headlines in 2003 and 2004 – that I was totally against the war.”
It’s a huge part of why Trump appeals to many so many Republicans and infuriates so many more: He doesn’t hesitate for a moment to turn party orthodoxy on its head.
Trump backs off the Pope
It was an unprecedented scene in modern American politics Thursday: Donald Trump was in the middle of a highly public battle with Pope Francis.
In a thinly veiled reference to Trump, the Pope said that pushing for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is “not Christian.”
Trump then shot back, calling the Pope’s comments “disgraceful.”
But this was no battle with Jeb Bush. Or George W. Bush. Or Ted Cruz. Or Rand Paul. Or Lindsey Graham. Or Rick Perry. Or John McCain. Or Mitt Romney. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Bill Clinton. Or anyone else Trump has attacked on the campaign trail.
He made clear Thursday night he had no appetite at all for a personal tiff against the Pope.
Asked first about about the day he’d just had, Trump replied with a joking sigh: “Well, the Pope is a wonderful guy.”
Then Trump moved to diffuse the situation.
“I think he said something much softer than it was originally reported by the media. I think he heard one side of the story, which was probably by the Mexican government,” he said. “I think he was very much misinterpreted, and I also think he was given misinformation.”
Trump even praised Pope Francis, saying: “I like his personality, I like what he represents, and I certainly have great respect for the position.”
During his own town hall Thursday afternoon, John Kasich hugged a young man who’d told a deeply personal story about overcoming a father figure’s suicide and his parents’ divorce.
Then, during CNN’s town hall, the Ohio governor essentially hugged the entire national audience.
“We need to slow down a little bit. There are a lot of people out there who are lonely, and are looking for a place to tell people about their issues,” he said.
It was the full Kasich treatment, on display for the nation to see for perhaps the first time.
Kasich wove in details of his tenure in Ohio and defended his choice to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. He pledged to continue his campaign despite low poll numbers in South Carolina, saying that “we’re going the distance.”
But moments like the one he’d shared with the young man at his town hall have helped Kasich break through even without the star power of a Donald Trump.
He finished with a powerful – and powerfully sad – story about his parents’ deaths and how during his grief, he found God, that couldn’t help but touch a nerve in the room and across the country.
“I’m not that great a guy, OK?” he said. “I’m just doing the best I can.”
Jeb the family man
Jeb Bush admits he’s an introvert. And Thursday night, he looked like a grueling campaign trail has been grinding him down – hewing close to his usual lines on a host of policy issues.
The former Florida governor lit up, though, when asked about his family.
His most memorable line of the night was about his brother George W. Bush’s painting hobby, which he pronounced “weird.”
He said he remembered the exact moment – 5 p.m. on a Sunday – when he met his wife, Columba, in Mexico 45 years ago. “She was the most beautiful girl I ever met in my life, and I decided I was going to marry her right then and now,” Bush said.
He touted the “diversity and joy” and “vitality” that his bicultural relationship has brought, including the language his family speaks at home. “Yeah, I speak Spanish,” he said, and briefly demonstrated.
He loves reading, he said, and “I learned that from my momma.” He spends “Sunday Funday” with his granddaughters.
And he learned more than he expected from Jon Meacham’s biography of his father, George H.W. Bush – in particular, “how tough it was to lose in 1992.”
“He didn’t share that. He’s part of a generation that you don’t show your emotions, you know. You grind through.”
Battle of the Bands, Night Two
Ben Carson likes Baroque and Marco Rubio listens to EDM, but John Kasich might have the most surprising taste in music of the entire presidential field.
His favorite bands? Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park.
The song he’s giving the most play these days is twenty one pilots’ “Stressed Out.” And generally, he likes newer, alternative rock.
Jeb Bush, meanwhile, prefers newer country music. He said he listens to the Zac Brown Band and Florida-Georgia Line.
Donald Trump’s tastes are a bit more classic: Elton John, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
He’s also an excellent name-dropper, touting his love for not just Michael Jackson’s music, but the man, who lived in Trump Tower.
Trump said he knew “the real story of Michael Jackson,” and revealed a bit about his own bravado in explaining it: “Michael was an unbelievable talent who lost his confidence, and believe it or not, when you lose your confidence in something, you can actually lose your talent.”
He also served up an all-American taste of the non-musical variety: He loves McDonalds. “It’s great stuff.”
CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson and Jodi Enda contributed to this report