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Trump handles Bush’s death with abnormal normality

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump pay their respects as former President George H.W. Bush lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White House

A taboo-busting president who has often trashed the Bush clan observes traditional norms of etiquette after its patriarch’s passing.

For President Donald Trump, there was once no worse insult than being “a Bushie.” That, a former White House official told POLITICO earlier this year, was “worse than being a Democrat.”

If Trump has been thinking such thoughts since the death of former president George H.W. Bush on Saturday, he hasn’t been sharing them. Bush’s death has at least temporarily displaced Trump’s public disdain for the Bush family and, for the moment, he is even borrowing from his late predecessor’s celebrated sense of etiquette.

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On Monday night, Trump visited Capitol Hill to pay personal respects to the 41st president, whose casket arrived earlier in the day and is lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The display of respect even extended to the late president’s son, former President George W. Bush, whom Trump has derided as “the worst president ever.” Trump offered Bush the use of his official guest residence, Blair House, while the younger Bush is in Washington for the events surrounding his father’s funeral, according to a White House official.

In short, the president is behaving normally — a jarring rarity for a man who casually shatters sacred political norms.

The source of Trump’s unusual restraint is unclear, particularly coming as it does during after November election gains by Democrats and new moves by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that have left him unusually volatile — and voluble — in recent weeks.

Donald and Melania Trump view George H.W. Bush's casket in the Capitol

It may be that Trump learned the hard way earlier this year what can happen when he fails to show fulsome respect for a deceased political icon.

While Trump’s surprise display of decorum has made him part of the sort of bipartisan Washington ritual he usually denounces, it has also helped him avoid the scathing reviews that followed his cool response to the August death of former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The White House issued no formal statement immediately after McCain’s death. Instead came a presidential tweet offering the president’s “deepest sympathies” to the senator’s family — but no praise for McCain himself. When the guardians of official Washington gathered at McCain’s funeral a week later, Trump was excluded from an event that became an implicit condemnation of almost everything he stands for — broadcast live on national television.

Trump is not repeating past mistakes. The White House wasted no time issuing a formal statement on Saturday, even citing the late president’s famous slogan about volunteerism — “a thousand points of light” — that Trump mocked as recently as this summer at a campaign rally in Montana.

“Thousand points of light, what the hell is that?” Trump asked a crowd in July. “Has anyone ever figured that one out? … A thousand points of light, I never really got that one.”

Donald Trump

On Monday evening, Trump channeled a kinder, gentler version of his wrecking-ball spirit. He paid a surprise visit to the Capitol, where Bush’s casket is lying in state. A president who rarely passes up a chance to speak his mind offered nothing in the way of commentary but a silent salute. The White House’s official Instagram feed featured an image of the 41st president’s portrait, draped in black cloth.

Bush’s funeral will be held in Washington on Wednesday. Unlike McCain’s farewell, he has been invited to Bush’s — meaning there is still time for Trump to revert to character.

But earlier on Monday, Trump’s comments echoed traditional eulogies offered by other Republicans with whom he is often at odds, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

McConnell praised Bush as “the greatest generation, distilled into a single lifetime.”

“His legacy is grace perfected,” Ryan said.

Amid typically angry tweets — including one demanding that his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, “serve a full and complete sentence” — Trump paused on Monday to salute Bush for living a “long, successful, and beautiful life.”

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