Did Jeb Bush make a binding pledge to back Donald Trump?

Former presidential candidate Jeb Bush
Former presidential candidate Jeb Bush AP

Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, but some of his former rivals haven’t yet jumped on the Trump train. Trump argued on Meet the Press recently that his former opponents should support him, because they promised.

“Jeb Bush signed a pledge. A binding pledge” to endorse the party nominee, Trump said May 8. Then Bush broke that pledge, Trump said, calling it “not honorable.” (Trump also included U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in his attack.)

During the campaign, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signaled he would support the nominee. But when we decided to fact-check this statement, we couldn’t find evidence that he actually had signed a pledge for the Republican National Committee. Party officials who are supposed to have copies either couldn’t or wouldn’t share them with us. Because we can’t independently verify that Bush signed a pledge, we’re not rating this statement on our Truth-O-Meter.

Another important point: Experts said the pledge was not legally binding.

Republican loyalty pledge

Spokespersons for Trump’s campaign and the RNC told PolitiFact Florida that all of the GOP candidates signed a pledge, but they wouldn’t answer additional questions.

The pledge came up after Trump’s comments at the first GOP debate on Aug. 6, when Trump said he wouldn’t rule out a third-party run.

The pledge reads:

“I (name) affirm that if I do not win the 2016 Republican nomination for president of the United States I will endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is. I further pledge that I will not seek to run as an independent or write-in candidate nor will I seek or accept the nomination for president of any other party.”

The one-page document included spots for signatures from RNC chairman Reince Priebus and the candidate. Trump held a press conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Sept. 3 to announce he had signed the pledge (which was mistakenly dated Aug. 3, although Trump later tweeted a corrected copy).

“I will be totally pledging my allegiance to the Republican Party and the conservative principles for which it stands,” Trump said.

Back then, the Associated Press reported that Bush planned to sign the pledge. However, we can’t find an actual copy or photo of Bush signing it. We asked an RNC spokeswoman for a copy of Bush’s pledge and did not get a response.

Nevertheless, Bush did signal his party loyalty. He tweeted a handwritten note directed to Trump reading “voted Republican since 1972.”

On Sept. 3, Bush appeared on ABC's Good Morning America and said “of course” he would support Trump if he became the nominee. “We need to be unified, we need to win,” he said.

But Bush also criticized Trump: “I think Mr. Trump ought to figure out a way maybe to lessen the divisive language, the hurtful language, and talk about the aspirations of the American people, rather than trying to prey on their fears.”

Another pledge was put forward by the South Carolina Republican Party, which required candidates to sign a pledge and submit it with $40,000 by Sept. 30 to qualify for the state primary ballot. The pledge stated, “I hereby affirm that I generally believe in and intend to support the nominees and platform of the Republican Party in the November 8, 2016, general election.”

We were unable to track down a copy of Bush’s South Carolina pledge. However, state party officials announced on Sept. 30 that 15 candidates had qualified for the state’s ballot, including Bush.

After losing the South Carolina primary on Feb. 20, Bush suspended his campaign. By May, Trump had sewn up the nomination.

In a May 6 Facebook post, Bush congratulated Trump on becoming the presumptive nominee, but said he won’t vote for Trump or likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Bush made no mention of the RNC pledge. Instead, Bush noted that the presidency requires “fortitude,” “humility” and “strong character.”

“Donald Trump has not demonstrated that temperament or strength of character. He has not displayed a respect for the Constitution. And, he is not a consistent conservative. These are all reasons why I cannot support his candidacy,” he wrote.

When asked about the pledge, Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell told PolitiFact Florida that Bush “never envisioned that the Republican Party would elect a non-conservative as its nominee. He is staying true to his conservative principles and will not vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.”

Trump wavered on pledge

Bush isn’t the only Republican to make conflicting statements about supporting the nominee, though.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said at the March 3 debate that he would support the nominee. But after Trump’s cancelled Chicago rally erupted in violence, Rubio wavered when asked if he would still support Trump if he won the nomination.

On May 10, Rubio said that he respects and accepts that Trump is the nominee, but he still has reservations about his campaign. On the same day, Rubio told CNN that “I signed a pledge that said I would support the Republican nominee and I intend to continue to do that.”

And Trump, too, has wavered on the pledge — despite his claim to Chuck Todd that he “didn’t back away.”

At a town hall in Milwaukee March 29, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he stood by his pledge to support the nominee.

Trump: “No. I don't anymore.”

Cooper: “You don't?”

Trump: “No, we'll see who it is.”

Trump told Cooper that he wouldn’t commit his support because he had been “treated very unfairly” by the RNC.

Was the pledge binding?

Experts told PolitiFact Florida that the pledge was essentially a promise by a candidate. But it’s not the same thing as a legal contract.

“The pledge is no more binding than any other politician's promise: It is enforceable through the public's future support or lack thereof for the person making the pledge,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California.

Emory University law professor Michael Kang said the oaths create political pressure but not much more. “I don’t think there are meaningful legal sanctions under these oaths for failing to do so at this point,” he said.

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noted that Trump said several times he would only adhere to the pledge if he were treated fairly, and that he would decide what that meant.

“Of course, Trump has a telling point here,” Ornstein said. “The only reason the pledge was raised was to jawbone and bludgeon Trump into staying as a Republican. So there is plenty of hypocrisy on the part of other candidates. But this whole exercise, including Trump's outlandish notion that this is a question of honor, given his own past statements, makes them all look foolish.”

Our conclusion

Trump said that Jeb Bush “signed a pledge — a binding pledge” to endorse the Republican nominee.

It’s likely that Bush signed at least one pledge agreeing to support the nominee. But we couldn’t independently verify that. And calling the pledges “binding” is going a bit too far. There are no official consequences that we could find for walking away from it. Trump himself several times wavered from his pledge. And election experts said it’s unlikely any politician could be forced into following a pledge that is so political in nature. It’s up to the court of public opinion to enforce a pledge — or not.

Politifact Florida is a partnership between The Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald to check out truth in politics.