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Ex-Presidents Send Trump a Pointed Message

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama make veiled critiques of Trump era 2:21

WASHINGTON — Politics has never been an innocent profession. Every generation has witnessed contentious arguments, division, scandals and below-the-belt attacks — McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-Contra, impeachment, the Iraq war and the all-out fight over Obamacare.

But what was extraordinary about Thursday was having two ex-presidents — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — deliver what amounted to a bipartisan, two-pronged denunciation of the Trump Era. Neither Bush nor Obama mentioned by Trump by name, but they also didn’t have to.

“I haven’t been commenting a lot on politics lately, but here’s one thing I know: If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you’re not going to be able to govern it,” Obama said while campaigning for Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard.

“We’re at our best when we’re not trying to put people down but when we’re trying to lift everybody up,” Obama added.

Meanwhile, hours earlier in a speech in New York, Bush said, “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush continued. “At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together.”

And Bush said this: “[W]e need to recall and recover our own identity. Americans have a great advantage: To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.”

Dividing people. Putting people down. Emboldened bigotry. Conspiracy theories. Casual cruelty. We need to remember our values.

George W. Bush: U.S. Discourse Has Been 'Degraded by Casual Cruelty' 1:32

These were stunning speeches from two ex-presidents, especially since both men were accused of being dividers during their own presidencies. And George W. Bush’s remarks were particularly striking, given that he didn’t really comment on politics during the eight years of the Obama Era. But it took Bush only nine months into the Trump Era to deliver the speech he did.

Members of the media and some political professionals have remarked how this Trump Era is DIFFERENT from past political eras. And on Thursday, you had two ex-presidents saying pretty much the same thing.

As our colleague Beth Fouhy reminds us, Bush, Obama and the other three living U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter) will participate in a hurricane-relief concert on Saturday in Texas.

John Kelly’s powerful remarks raised three questions

There was another extraordinary moment on Thursday — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s appearance at press podium.

NBC’s Ali Vitali: “In heartfelt remarks about his own loss, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former general whose Marine son was killed in Afghanistan, said Thursday he was ‘stunned’ by a Florida lawmaker's criticism of President Donald Trump's condolence call to a fallen soldier's wife.

Gen. Kelly 'Stunned' and 'Broken-Hearted' by Rep. Wilson's Condolence Call Claims 1:27

“Kelly described himself as ‘broken-hearted’ coming to work at the White House on Wednesday as he saw Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, on news networks disclosing the private details of Trump's call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was among four soldiers killed this month in Niger.”

While Kelly’s words were powerful, they also raised questions he didn’t answer yesterday:

  1. With Trump denying he told the Johnson family that La David T. Johnson “must've known what he signed up for,” didn’t Kelly essentially confirm that was the message Trump delivered to the family? ("In [Trump's] way tried to express that opinion — that he's a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted,” Kelly told reporters.)
  2. Why did Kelly get his facts wrong during his attack on Rep. Wilson? At a 2015 dedication at a Miami FBI office, Kelly said, Wilson “stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building.” (The Miami Herald says the legislation Wilson sponsored NAMED the FBI building after those slain agents; the money for it was approved BEFORE she came to Congress.)
  3. Why didn’t the Trump White House take the higher ground? Trump and his White House turned this all into a story by A) having Trump say that Obama and past presidents didn’t call Gold Star families; B) having Trump say in a radio interview to ask Kelly if Obama called him after his son died in Afghanistan; and C) having Kelly attack Wilson from the White House podium.

Senate passes budget, paving the way for tax reform

NBC’s Frank Thorp: “The Senate on Thursday passed a Republican budget resolution that would pave the way to use a special procedural rule to consider tax reform later this year. The $4 trillion budget blueprint passed 51-49, with all Democrats and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky voting against it.”

“It sets the stage for debate later this year to dramatically overhaul the U.S. tax code, cutting rates for individuals and corporations while clearing away trillions of dollars' worth of deductions and special-interest tax breaks.”