Ted Cruz refused on Saturday to say that Donald Trump is fit to be president; even as he defended his surprise endorsement a day earlier of a man he called a “pathological liar” during the bitter tussle for the Republican presidential nomination. Speaking at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Cruz said he forgave Trump for insults directed at him and his family and had been persuaded to fall in line by his belief that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, must not be allowed to enter the White House, where he fears she would appoint liberal supreme court justices and trample over the constitution.
“I talked with both Donald and [his running-mate] Mike Pence yesterday,” Cruz said. “He was very gracious, he said thank you for the support.”
“We’re going to move on and put the past behind us,” he added. Still, Cruz gave no impression that his antipathy towards Trump, or opinion of his presidential qualifications, have changed much since the spring. “I have been very clear that I have significant disagreements with him.”
Making it clear he feels Trump is merely his least unpalatable option on the ballot, the Texas senator did not retract his criticisms, but he declined to repeat them during an onstage interview with Evan Smith, chief executive of the Texas Tribune, at the University of Texas.
“We’re in a general election, I don’t think it is productive for me to criticize the Republican nominee today,” he said.
“Do you consider Donald Trump to be fit to be president?” Smith asked.“I think we have one of two choices,” Cruz said. He then talked about how hard he had tried to win the primary, and said the electoral process has produced “effectively a binary choice”. In May, after Trump denigrated Heidi Cruz, the senator’s wife, and Trump claimed that Cruz’s father had a link to the assassination of John F Kennedy, Cruz’s finally unleashed an explicit condemnation of the businessman with whom he had feuded for months. The Texas senator responded with a diatribe against Trump, calling him “utterly amoral”, a “pathological liar”, “kooky”, a “serial philanderer”, a “bully”, a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen” and a “braggadocious, arrogant buffoon” who risked plunging America “into the abyss”. Trump retorted on Twitter: “Wow, Lyin’ Ted Cruz really went wacko today. Made all sorts of crazy charges. Can’t function under pressure – not very presidential. Sad!”That night, Cruz ended his campaign after Trump won the Indiana primary, a vote that effectively clinched the nomination. In the months that followed, as other White House hopefuls and senior party figures got behind Trump, however reluctantly, Cruz declined to follow.
At the Republican National Convention in July, he urged his audience to “vote your conscience” in a speech that drew boos and accusations of disloyalty. Still, time appears to have bridged some of the rift, even if Cruz has found himself on teetering on the edge of another abyss. Cruz announced his about-turn on Facebook on Friday, writing that defeating Clinton was all-important. After much soul-searching, he wrote, he would honor a pledge made last year to support whomever became the nominee.
“In my view, by any measure Hillary Clinton’s manifestly unfit to be president,” Cruz said in Austin on Saturday.
“The @SenTedCruz endorsement was a wonderful surprise. I greatly appreciate his support! We will have a tremendous victory on November 8th,” Trump tweeted on Saturday. Only a few months earlier, in July, Trump said: “I don’t want his endorsement. If he gives it, I will not accept it … nobody cares.”
With his political future seemingly in question and Trump’s improved showing in recent polls putting added pressure on him to back the GOP candidate, Cruz tried to justify his decision to the Texas crowd. He argued he was being faithful to the party’s choice and his conservative principles, even though he had previously made it clear he saw the two as incompatible. That meant conveying that even though he still feels Trump is an imperfect candidate, he would at least be a better defender of the US constitution and conservative values than Clinton. This delicate task – supporting Trump without praising him – required a verbal tightrope act, and Cruz often wobbled.
During a question and answer session, a Muslim woman asked what she could expect from a Trump presidency.
“That is a question you’re going to have to ask yourself,” Cruz said, to jeers from many in the audience, before he pivoted to a favourite topic, his belief that a strong leader is required to combat “terrorism”.
He was also asked how, with a wife and two daughters, he could support a misogynist.
“That’s a question I have wrestled with,” Cruz said. “At the same time I want my daughters to have a country where they enjoy freedom of speech, where they enjoy rights under the bill of rights.”
Cruz’s move risks undermining his self-proclaimed stance as an uncompromising, principled conservative who is unafraid to break ranks. RedState, an influential conservative website, described the news as “TEDMAGEDDON”.
Caleb Howe, the associate managing editor, wrote: “All he has done is taken his only remaining dedicated fanbase, his hardcore supporters who make up an also large, though probably not half, segment of the #NeverTrump population, and utterly disappointed them.”
Though the 45-year-old Cruz is said to be eyeing a second tilt at the White House in 2020, after his non-endorsement in July there were indications of a dip in popularity in Texas that might lead to a stiff challenge in 2018 to retain his US senate seat.
“Whatever path I went down there were going to be people that were dismayed. There was no option that wouldn’t result in people being deeply, deeply unhappy,” Cruz said. “I think a lot of folks saw me as the face of Never Trump. I have never been Never Trump, I have never said I would never support Donald Trump. I have been Never Hillary.”
Another speaker at the Texas Tribune Festival, the Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, said he was surprised by the volte-face.
“I thought he was a really principled guy and this doesn’t sound all
that principled,” he told the Guardian. “When he in a very principled way said, ‘Look I said I’m going to vote for whomever the nominee was, but I can’t vote for him because he’s a serial liar and he insulted my wife’… to me that sounded pretty principled.
“That he’s going to now vote for Trump? Sounds like there’s some calculation here on the future.”
Not that Johnson – who is polling at about 9%, below the number that would have qualified him to take part in Monday’s first presidential debate – sees much long-term hope for a party he believes is damaged by internal division and a failure to appeal to young people.
“I think the Republican party is done for,” he said.