AUSTIN, Texas — Ted Cruz appears uncomfortable defending the man he says he’ll vote for in November, Donald Trump.
Addressing a policy forum organized by The Texas Tribune, the Texas senator said Saturday it was “agonizing” making the decision to back Trump, whom he once called a “pathological liar” and “serial philanderer.” He denied he caved in to pressure from top Republicans nationally and in his home state, saying he would have faced an outcry no matter what.
“Any path we took, if I supported Donald, if I didn’t support Donald, the criticism was going to be there,” Cruz told a packed auditorium.
Cruz offered little defense of Trump’s past comments on Muslim-Americans. He also said his two young daughters, while campaigning with him in the primaries, had felt the sting of Trump’s comments about women. Asked whether he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin was a better leader than President Barack Obama, as Trump suggested, Cruz said, “I have no intention of defending everything Donald Trump says or does.”
Cruz rocked the Republican National Convention in Cleveland by avoiding an endorsement of the nominee and instead urging delegates to “vote your conscience.” He held out for several months afterward, even as some polls suggested his popularity was slipping nationally and in Texas, where he could face a Republican primary challenge for re-election to the Senate in 2018.
Trump angered Cruz in the primaries by insulting his wife and suggesting, without evidence, that his Cuban-born father could have been linked to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Cruz said Saturday that he spoke with Trump a day earlier, after announcing that he will vote for the nominee, and Trump “was very gracious” but didn’t apologize for what he said about his family.
Cruz said a key reason for changing his mind was Trump’s naming of a top Cruz ally, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, in his updated list of potential Supreme Court picks. Asked if he doubts Trump will keep his word about that or other promises, Cruz responded: “I don’t think it is productive for me to criticize the Republican nominee today.”
Cruz aides say the senator felt boxed in by his past positon on Trump because he had urged voters not to stay home in November but also didn’t think any third-party candidates were viable. And he didn’t want to be seen by conservatives as aiding Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Asked Saturday, “What happened to ‘vote your conscience?'” Cruz responded: “It’s a good question and it’s still what I would urge everyone to do.”
But he added that he is now backing Trump because, “By any measure, Hillary Clinton is manifestly unfit to be president.”