During Wednesday’s insane 3-hour clown-slapping orgy known as the second Republican presidential debate, front-runner Donald Trump and hapless establishment favorite Jeb! Bush went toe-to-toe several times. One of the most interesting exchanges came early on when Jeb! accused Trump essentially of trying to corrupt him when he was governor of Florida. Trump flatly denied it. The exchange began with the moderator Jake Tapper addressing Bush:
Tapper: One of the reasons Mr. Trump is the front-runner, Republican voters say, is because they like the fact that he is not bought and paid for by wealthy donors. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that the $100 million you’ve raised for your campaign makes you a puppet for your donors. Are you?
Bush: No! Absolutely not. People are supporting me because I have a proven record of conservative leadership. … The one guy that had some special interest that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something, that was generous and gave me money, was Donald Trump! He wanted casino gambling in Florida.
Trump: I did not!
Bush: Yes you did.
Trump: Totally false.
Bush: You wanted it and you didn’t get it because I was opposed to casino gambling before, during and after, and I’m not going to be bought by anybody.
Trump: I promise you, if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.
Bush: No way…
Trump: Believe me. I know my people.
Bush: Nope. Not even possible.
During this 20-second exchange, the body language becomes fascinating. Bush looks very satisfied with himself for landing the accusation, and Trump makes a big show of looking like he’s hearing the craziest thing anyone has ever said.
But Bush had good reason to feel satisfied. There’s actually quite a lot of information out there on this subject. And while there’s no hard evidence that Trump petitioned Bush directly, the preponderance of information suggests that Trump did, in fact, try to build casinos in Florida and Bush rebuffed him.
An article in the St. Petersburg Times from June, 1998, says that Donald Trump is making a huge pitch to get involved in Native casino gambling in Florida.
“Trump has teamed up with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The two have hired the same high-powered lobbyist to bring full-scale casino gambling to the state.”
The fact that they shared a lobbyist is significant. If Trump did petition Bush, the lobbyist would have been the initial conduit for it.
A recent Washington Post article describes many years of animosity between Trump and the Bushes, despite a relationship that originally started as a tentative alliance between the mogul and the powerful dynasty. Bush Sr. asked Trump to hold a fundraiser for Jeb.
In 1997, Trump said, Bush asked him to host a fundraiser for his son, Jeb, who was running for Florida governor. Trump agreed. The event was in his apartment at Trump Tower.
It was not merely a political favor. Trump had been trying to persuade Florida lawmakers to allow his company to manage casinos on tribal land.
“I had a fundraiser and raised about $1 million, which in those days was a lot of money,” Trump said. “In fact, I remember [Jeb] saying, ‘It was the most successful fundraiser I’ve ever had.’ ”
Trump said George H.W. Bush wrote him “a beautiful note thanking me for helping with his son.”
Politifact says that the haul for that fundraiser was actually $500,000, half of Trump’s claim. But Trump held a huge fundraiser for Jeb while hoping to build casinos in Florida.
In a 2005 article detailing a legal challenge between Trump and a former business partner, Bloomberg says that Trump dropped his efforts to build casinos in Florida shortly after Jeb was elected and stood firm against gambling in the state.
Fields maintains in court documents that Trump was only interested in building “Class III” casinos, offering pure games of chance, such as slot machines, craps, and roulette. When Florida Governor Jeb Bush nixed the idea, “Trump directed that the effort be terminated entirely,” Fields’s filings say.
Jeb’s claim that Trump gave him money and wanted casino gambling in Florida is true. It may be impossible to know whether Trump actively tried to get Jeb to “change” his “views” on gambling. But Trump clearly invested in a systematic effort to influence Bush. This explains Trump’s smirking, theatrical denials.
Bush finally landed a meaningful blow against Trump. Whether it influences Republican primary voters remains to be seen.