AUSTIN — One day after Ted Cruz endorsed Donald Trump, the Republican nominee whom he once accused of being a "pathological liar" and "sniveling coward," the Texas senator was still explaining himself. He called the decision "agonizing." He revealed that he did not ask Trump to apologize for insults to his wife and father. Asked if he considered Trump "fit to be president," he would only say that there were "two choices" in the election.
And he told Evan Smith, the founding editor of the Texas Tribune, that Hillary Clinton's threat to the Supreme Court and the country was enough to move him off the fence.
"You think a serial philanderer and pathological liar should be president?" Smith said.
Cruz paused. “I have had many, many disagreements with Donald," he deadpanned.
The audience, in one of the biggest rooms at the annual Texas Tribune Festival, was loaded with Cruz skeptics. He drew only scattered applause when he discussed his Senate initiatives and his work to keep the Republicans in control of the upper chamber; he drew boos when he suggested that critical coverage of police-involved shootings was leading to more crime by preventing police from doing their jobs. ("Black lives are being lost because cops are pulling back," he insisted.)
But Cruz held his ground, telling Smith and a succession of hostile audience questioners that he had "wrestled" with the decision and come out supporting Trump. "What I said in Cleveland was that every voter needs to follow his conscience," said Cruz, recasting a Republican National Convention speech that was interpreted (and intended) as an invitation not to vote for Trump.
It was the latest in a series of awkward-but-necessary explanatory interviews, with more to come, including a Monday talk with Glenn Beck. The first came after a Cruz appearance in conservative Tyler, Tex., where he told the Tribune's Patrick Svitek that his family was getting past Trump's venomous primary attacks. "All three of us have decided to forgive the past, and my focus in making this decision was on trying my best to do the right thing for the country," he said.
That comment came after an event with supportive Republican activists. The Tribune sit-down — held on the campus of the University of Texas — was something entirely different. Smith, who has covered Cruz throughout his career, read back the harshest things Cruz had said about Trump and recalled the morning of the Indiana primary, when Cruz unloaded on Trump over months of personal attacks culminating in a false accusation that Cruz's father was linked to John F. Kennedy's assassin.
"You looked like your head was going to blow off your neck," Smith said.
Cruz admitted that he had taken the family attacks personally, and "struggled" to get over them, but that Trump's targets were not as angry as he had been. "Both Heidi and my dad — they are strong, independent people," he said. "When those attacks came, they both laughed out loud."
Asked how he could move on when Trump had not even apologized for the attacks — indeed, Trump had once said he'd reject it if Cruz ever endorsed him — Cruz said that he had not asked for an apology. On Friday, after he published a Facebook post explaining the reasons he would support Trump, Cruz talked to the nominee and focused on the need to appoint conservative judges and Supreme Court justices.
"When I got the ask, I said: Give a commitment that matters to me," Cruz recalled. "Give a commitment to something meaningful on the Supreme Court."
Cruz added that Republican Party activists, and many supporters of his presidential campaign, had wanted him to get behind the nominee. He had seen that firsthand after his RNC speech, when he got hostile feedback at a breakfast with Texas delegates. The drumbeat had grown louder since, with political allies such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Tex.) saying that Cruz was hurting his career and the movement if he refused to back Trump. But Cruz handed more credit to the party's activists.
"They were tearfully begging me to support the nominee," Cruz said. "They trudged through the snow; they made phone calls. Their view was that they were horrified by a Hillary Clinton presidency. Listen: If people from Washington are smacking me with a stick, I don't care. It usually means I'm doing the right thing. But when you hear the voices of the grass roots who believe with all their heart — their voices move me."
Inside the Tribune festival, Cruz was confronted with some different voices. The first audience question came from a Muslim student, who asked "if Muslims can feel comfortable with a candidate who has been outwardly xenophobic."
"Listen, that is a question you are going to have to ask yourself," Cruz said.
"But she's asking you!" said Smith, as the crowd booed.
"The scourge of radical Islam is dangerous," said Cruz, "and many of the victims of it are Muslim. Look, [the Islamic State] is murdering fellow Muslims as well as murdering Christians. We are seeing Muslim presidents being torn apart by jihadists. My hope is that we have a president who brings people together to combat that, including Muslim nations."
Cruz went on to describe exactly how that president could build alliances, prompting Smith to ask for a clarification: Was he talking about Trump?
"Between the two choices of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I believe that Hillary Clinton will do a great deal of damage to this country," Cruz said.
"You are a straight shooter, but I'll note that you did not say yes," Smith said.
Next, a member of the audience asked how Cruz, a father of two daughters, could support a man who made "misogynist" comments. After the applause died down, Cruz recounted how he had told Caroline and Catherine about Trump's April retweet of a fan who had mocked their mother's looks.
"They know already," he said. "When he said that about Heidi, we sat down and talked about it."
Cruz pivoted to the court issue, telling the skeptical questioner that "freedom of speech" was at risk if Clinton won the election. "If Hillary Clinton is elected president, we will see one, two, three, maybe four Supreme Court justices added to the court," he said. "I think the court will be lost for a generation. That will mean my daughters' rights will be lost for a generation."
"Like the right to choice?" the questioner asked.
There was more applause, and then more booing, when Cruz explained that Clinton favored abortion without legal limits. Cruz was asked by another person whether he agreed with Trump that Russian President "Vladimir Putin is a stronger leader than our president." Finally, Cruz told the audience that "in the weeks before a general election, when there is a binary choice," he would not be re-litigating the issues with Trump.
"I have no intention of defending everything that Donald Trump says and does," he said. "I don't think it is beneficial for me to be criticizing the nominee. If y'all invite me to do it, I will decline the invitation."