Rep. Rooney: Newest Bush Ally During Trump Era
WASHINGTON – It is not a popular time to be a close ally of the Bush family in Washington. Along with a photo of his grandchildren, hanging on Representative Francis Rooney’s (R-FL) office wall is a picture of the Congressman smiling with former President George W. Bush. The 43rd Commander in Chief appointed Rooney as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican where he served from 2005-2008. Rooney Holdings Inc, owned by the former US Envoy, donated more than $2 million to Governor Jeb Bush’s campaign for President.
When asked by Jewish Insider during an extensive interview about his role models, the Florida lawmaker cited both George W. and Jeb Bush for “providing good, decent, honest public service and great contributions to this country.”
However, the rise of Donald Trump brought harsh attacks against the Bush family. The New York real estate magnate repeatedly taunted Jeb as “low energy” and even made the argument — shocking in most Republican circles — that former President George W. Bush made America less safe for failing to prevent the September 11 terror attacks. “The personal attack aspect was very difficult and I thought uncalled for,” noted Rooney.
Unlike many politicians, the 63-year-old Congressman did not long have political ambitions. “I never really thought about running for elected office before. I spent most of my time giving money to people whose causes I support and doing some diplomatic activities around the world.” The former Ambassador added that his wife, Kathleen, planted the idea for him to run, and only four days later he hired Jeb’s consultant and he was off to the races.
Rooney fondly recalled his time as Ambassador to the Vatican. “I was too nervous to speak” when meeting with the Pope for the first time, he confided. Serving as a Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rooney draws upon his diplomatic background and extensive travel. As part of his business trips, Rooney visited Iran before the Shah fell in 1979 along with visits to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The Florida lawmaker was only 26 years old when his father passed away thrusting Francis and his brother to leadership positions in the family construction business. Rooney enjoyed a lengthy successful business career where he served as CEO of Rooney Holdings, an investment and holdings company based in Naples, Florida.
On the Congressman’s foreign affairs page of his website, the former Ambassador places Israel as his top issue. “We need to publicly reaffirm that Israel is a beacon of democracy and capitalism and freedom in an area that doesn’t have much of any of those things,” Rooney asserted. “It wouldn’t bother me a bit to move that Embassy just to show them,” he added when calling for the moving of the US diplomatic post from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He was especially struck by the 2006 Lebanon War when Rooney served as Ambassador. “Hezbollah took it to an all new level by taking all kinds of children and women and sticking them in those hospitals when they had their arms cached beneath them and there was no choice but to take them out,” he explained.
As with other Republican Members of Congress, Rooney faced a tough town hall when returning to his district with hundreds of attendees. “They were probably 80 plus percent opposition. Out of the 80 percent, I would say half of them were bused in. The people came in with pre-printed cards and they had an instructor tell them where to sit to ensure that we had stereo protesting all around the room,” he explained. After receiving numerous questions about health care legislation, Rooney noted, “How much can you beat a dead horse?”
Circling back to the Bush family repeatedly throughout the interview, the Florida lawmaker reflected on the 2016 Republican race, especially considering his ardent support for his longtime ally. “Jeb ran an intellectual, compassionate issue-centric campaign,” he emphasized. “There is obviously a lot of emotion out there among the American people, maybe related to the last eight years of Obama that wasn’t interested in that kind of logical issue-oriented advocacy.”
Jewish Insider: Why did you run for Congress?
Congressman Francis Rooney: “I never really thought about running for elected office before. I spent most of my time giving money to people whose causes I support and doing some diplomatic activities around the world. This fellow, Clawson, abruptly and unexpectedly decided not to seek re-election and I had been very involved in Jeb Bush’s campaign that had flamed out. I had been traveling and doing a lot of foreign policy speaking about things I disagreed with about the Obama foreign policy. My wife, Kathleen, said ‘you know, you ought to think about doing that.’ And maybe you can make a difference. So we talked to the kids. This was a Thursday night about 9:00 and Monday morning I was in. I hired the only consultant that I knew, which was Jeb’s and we were off and running.”
JI: On your website in the Foreign Policy section, you place Israel as the number one issue. Why is Israel such an important priority for you?
Rooney: “We have had eight years of absolute weakness and inconsistent foreign policy around the world. We have a lot of number one issues, but certainty under Obama, Israel is number one. He basically abandoned our historic Israel-Sunni ally sphere of hegemony there in the Middle East and has unleashed a lot of problems, like Syria and Iraq and the hegemony of Iran. The first step for us is to strengthen our relationship publicly with Israel. It wouldn’t bother me a bit to move that Embassy just to show them, but certainly the Memorandum is coming up. It needs to include a missile shield that is capable of dealing with the one Lebanon put in. It needs to deal with new technology and we need to publicly reaffirm that Israel is a beacon of democracy and capitalism and freedom in an area that doesn’t have much of any of those things.”
JI: Can you please discuss the highlights and most important moments when working as US Ambassador to the Vatican?
Rooney: “One great one was the Lebanon War when, as you know, Hezbollah took it to an all new level by taking all kinds of children and women and sticking them in those hospitals when they had their arms cached beneath them and there was no choice but to take them out. And of course, CNN goes crazy and the biblical moaning and gnashing of teeth. And the fact of the matter is it was a short little war and it showed that we need to be super tough against the Hezbollah-Iran-Syria axis. We all know they were resupplying through those tunnels from Syria.”
“So that was a great time because I got to work on trying to unify the Christian part of the coalition in Lebanon, which was falling apart because as you know General Aoun was co-opted by Hezbollah, upset what had been historically a fairly stable architecture there. I got to work on that personally. It was great fun to work with the Israeli Ambassador and government there to help defend an effort to put a quick end to that war despite the civilian casualties that accompanied it because of the nature of stockpiling those weapons around civilians.”
JI: In addition to your political viewpoints, would you like to share other parts about yourself that others may not know on Capitol Hill?
Rooney: “First of all meeting the Pope was fantastic, especially for a Catholic. I was too nervous to speak when I was there meeting with him. That picture right there, we have a picture with our family. We had a great visit. He talked then extensively about the Quran and his lifelong studying of the different comparative religions and his theory, which Muhammad is going to show up: the early pastoral one or the later hegemonic one? That dichotomy of the Quran, that stuck with me for three years as these events kept unfolding like Lebanon.”
JI: Like President Trump, you are also a wealthy independent businessman who donated significant sums before entering politics. You share viewpoints on radical Islam and other issues, do you see similarities between yourself and Trump?
Rooney: “Well, no. I am who I am. I’m a lifelong CEO, builder of companies. We have been fortunate to work with a lot of great people in the US and abroad. I have enjoyed the diplomatic life. Been interfacing with the government off and on throughout my business career around the world so this is kind of a new chapter.”
JI: Given your longtime connections with the Bush family, what did you think of Donald Trump repeatedly insulting Jeb Bush as “low energy” and arguing that President George W. Bush made America less safe?
Rooney: “I talked to his chief of staff this morning. It was because the personal attack aspect was very difficult and I thought uncalled for. The practical aspect of it was in hindsight maybe things could have gone differently in Iraq. There are arguments that can be made that we didn’t have the kinds of successes in Iraq that we certainly expected. And the ground troop deployment of countries 6,000 miles away is very difficult. Jeb ran an intellectual, compassionate issue-centric campaign and there is obviously a lot of emotion out there among the American people, maybe related to the last eight years of Obama that wasn’t interested in that kind of logical issue-oriented advocacy.”
JI: The New York Times recently ran an op-ed arguing that the current Pope is an “Anti-Trump” based on their competing views on refugees and inclusion. Based on your expertise of the Vatican having served as Ambassador, do you agree?
Rooney: “I don’t know about anti-Trump but the current Pope is definitely interested in social justice given his lifetime of serving the poor in Buenos Aires, I can understand why. We see him saying some things on the diplomatic side, maybe Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul would have said a little differently.”
JI: What have been most surprising while serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee?
Rooney: “I’m glad to do that since I have spent a lot of my life in that space. I like to write a lot about foreign affairs and I have been to a lot of countries. We have a great group of people on that committee and great leadership by Congressman Royce.”
“We’re still in the early innings of this. Only a few months into this thing. But, we have had a very good hearing on Venezuela. We had a very good hearing on Iran and the risks that this treaty poses and the risks so long as the Quds force and Revolutionary Guards reports to the Mullahs and not to the elected government, there is very little space to deal productively with Iran despite what the former President thought.”
JI: How did you get so interested in the Middle East?
Rooney: “I spent a fair bit of time in and out of there, certainly in the late 1970s. I was even in Iran before the Shah fell. For the same reason, a lot of other countries in the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. So, I have always had a strong interest in it and now it has become the fault line for civilization, quite frankly. We had all these bad Arab governments and a lot of resentment arose with the rise of Arab nationalism: Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ayatollah.”
JI: Who is your role model?
Rooney: “There are so many good people who have had an influence on my life and I think about all the time. Certainly President George W. Bush and Jeb two people, I think an awful lot of that have waded into this public space and provided good, decent, honest public service and great contributions to this country.”
JI: Republicans across the country have faced difficult town hall meetings. How did you respond to the hundreds attending your district meeting?
Rooney: “One was 700 people and one was 300 people and they were probably 80 plus percent opposition. Out of the 80 percent, I would say half of them were bused in. And the people came in with pre-printed cards and they had an instructor tell them where to sit to ensure that we had stereo protesting all around the room. When you hear the same question with the same words asked ten times, you have got to figure someone put them up to it. At one point I said, I can answer about Obamacare one more time or we can get on to something else. How much can you beat a dead horse? I answered it. I enjoyed it. I started out by saying the First Amendment gives us this great opportunity to express ourselves freely and honestly but imposes an obligation to respect everyone else’s free speech. Let’s try to live up to that. And everybody got to say their piece.”
JI: Last week, FBI Director testified that they are investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. What is your view on this development?
Rooney: “Well, I still haven’t heard anything concrete about anything. I have heard the possibility that Manafort was paid by the Russians or the Ukrainians. I have heard Turkey had paid General Flynn some things. So depending on when those payments were made and who those payments were disclosed to and what they were doing concerning the Administration, there could be some issues there that will certainly come out by the FBI or intelligence committees, but I think it is a distracted sideshow in the sense that the Democrats try to use this to imply that that caused the election? That didn’t cause the election. Obama and Hillary Clinton caused the election. The people are sick of it.”
JI: Is there anything else you would like to add about yourself?
Rooney: “I was 26 when my dad died. And my brother and I took over the family construction company. And times were tough. Jimmy Carter had just ended his presidency. Americans were down in the dumps. The Iranians had our hostages. Jimmy Carter publicly went on TV and said America’s best days were behind it. He wasn’t so great to Israel either. Ronald Reagan came in and people got their confidence back. The tax changes stimulated the economy, which was very good for me and my brother. We had a good run. A lot of the economics that ended right after 2009 resulted from those fundamental shifts of Ronald Reagan.”