George W. Bush weighs in on Trump's administration. Is he breaking tradition?

Former President George W. Bush voiced his support for a free press, and said Americans 'need answers' on the administration's alleged ties to Russia, but avoided directly criticizing the new president.

Win McNamee/ Pool Photo via AP/ File
Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush arrive on the West Front of the US Capitol on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C. for Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony as the 45th president of the United States.

After staying silent during the eight-year term of his own immediate successor, former President George W. Bush carefully responded to President Trump's first month in office on Monday, voicing his support for a free press and an investigation of the administation's ties with Russia.

His comments came after Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California made the call for a special prosecutor to investigate how Russia may have interfered with the 2016 presidential election and what contact the president’s top advisers may have had with Russian officials during the campaign.

"I think we all need answers," Mr. Bush said on NBC's "Today" show Monday, where he was discussing his new book of portraits and stories of US veterans. "I'm not sure the right avenue to take. I am sure, though, that that question needs to be answered."

Former presidents rarely make public comments about those who follow them, part of a tradition that marks the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. But that precedent has been shattered twice during Mr. Trump's first five weeks in office.

For some liberals, the former presidents' willingness to break tradition underscores their view that Trump's unorthodox approach to governing could bring an existential threat to the country, not partisan politics as usual.

“There is legitimate basis for concern,” John Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this week. “While apocalyptic rhetoric might be exaggerated, there have been real invasions of civil liberties, deep threats to civil rights. It’s perfectly appropriate to be watchful and wary.”

But others view "apocalyptic" rhetoric on the left as unproductive, or polarizing, and point to some conservatives' similar language about Mr. Obama's administration.

"Regardless of what party you come from – but in particular for the left right now – the key is to be very, very selective about where they raise the alarm," Erik Mr. Fogg, co-author of the 2015 book, “Wedged: How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again,” previously told the Monitor. 

Early on, Obama said that he would refrain from commenting on Trump’s actions – unless the president took steps that threatened what Obama sees as core American values.

“I want to be respectful of the office and give the president-elect an opportunity to put forward his platform and his arguments without somebody popping off in every instance,” Obama said following the election.

“As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle, but go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it's necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I'll examine it when it comes,” he added.

Less than two weeks after leaving office, after Trump issued an executive order limiting immigration and refugees, Obama issued a statement saying he "fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion," and that he was "heartened" by those who had become engaged in their communities and peaceful protest.

Bush said Monday that he supported "an immigration policy that's welcoming and upholds the law," warning that an order discriminating against Muslims could create further problems in fighting radical terrorism.

"I think it's very hard to fight the war on terrorism if we're in retreat," he said.

The former president also issued support for the press, championing the importance of an independent media to hold leaders accountable. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona made similar remarks in defense of the press earlier this month.

"I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account," Bush said. "Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere."

But Bush did note that Trump’s administration is in its early days, and that the president has most of the next four years to work to heal the nation’s divisions.

“I think you’ll have to take the man at his word that he wants to unify the country, and we’ll see if he’s able to do so.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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