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Let’s uproot the pernicious, unproven claim that Ted Cruz attacked Donald Trump’s wife

Trump at a news conference last August. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

There is no evidence that Ted Cruz attacked Donald Trump's wife.

In a normal election year, this statement would be relatively uncontroversial. After all, it's true. Yes, there was an ad that ran in Utah, suggesting that because she had posed for provocative modeling photos, she was somehow unfit to be first lady. But, no, that ad was not from the Cruz campaign. It was from the Make America Awesome super PAC, a group that raises and spends money without input from any candidate, including Cruz.

How do I know that? Well, I know that if such a political action committee were to coordinate with Cruz -- say, by running an ad at his behest -- it would be a federal crime. I know a presidential candidate purposefully violating federal law is almost certainly not worth the risk. I know that Cruz was going to win Utah anyway, by a wide margin, so violating federal law to win with 70 percent of the vote versus 65 percent is a particularly dumb idea.

But this is not how Donald Trump tells it.

"From what I hear," he told ABC's Jonathan Karl on "This Week" on Sunday, "[Cruz] and his campaign went out and bought the cover shoot." The image in the ad was from a spread in GQ magazine.

"From what I hear," he continued, "somebody bought the rights to it and he was the one or his campaign bought the rights and they gave it to the super PAC."

This is actually a more detailed critique than Trump offered when he first broached the subject, which he did on Twitter last week. Then, it was "Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad." Now, at least, Trump suggests that the ad wasn't Cruz's.

But what he suggested to Karl is still a crime. This is why campaigns now record lengthy video segments and put them out in public, so that PACs can legally use B-roll footage of candidates in their ads without coordinating with the campaigns. Cruz's team can't buy anything and give it to the PAC in private, even if it did want to violate federal law to toss a few extra percentage-point pebbles into its Utah landslide. Which -- again! -- there's no evidence that it did.

We expect this from Trump by now. Trump says things, and they are wrong. People note that they are wrong, and Trump and his supporters don't care. That's the pattern.

Cruz is blasting Trump for a National Enquirer story accusing Cruz of having five mistresses. Here's a breakdown of how a week of fighting got us here. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Trump is aided in this case by his having tilled the soil of suggesting that Cruz is unethical or a cheater by accusing the senator from Texas of stealing votes in Iowa and lying (which is why Trump calls him "Lyin' Ted") -- accusations with little basis in reality.

What's frustrating about this particular scenario, though, is that it's not just Trump who's conflating Cruz with the super PAC that ran the ad. (A super PAC, mind you, that can be taken at face value when it says that its priority is less Cruz's being the nominee than Trump's not being the nominee.) It's a common conflation among television pundits, too.

BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski spotted this interview on Fox News's "O'Reilly Factor."

"I have to mention that Senator Ted Cruz is a raving hypocrite," said Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News host, "for not mentioning that it was his super PAC that ran the Melania nude picture on the eve of the Utah, Mormon-heavy Utah caucuses, so Cruz starts it."

Rivera is corrected. His response? "I think there is coordination, even if it is just whispers and nods." Viewers are left with the impression that this is just a point of disagreement between Rivera and the host, not that Rivera is making a serious charge without evidence.

And he's not alone. On Friday night on CNN, a former contestant on Trump's "Apprentice," Omarosa Manigault, made a similar claim -- repeatedly. In a debate with Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, Manigault claimed that Cruz had started the attacks on wives.

"You and others all across Twitter," Conway said, "are saying that Ted Cruz and his camp has posted pictures and insulted Melania Trump. I was on the show --"

"He has," Manigault said.

"He has not!" Conway replied.

"He has," Manigault replied.

There's the rebuttal. Either out of ignorance or out of denial, Manigault (and others) are accusing Cruz of illegally coordinating with a PAC because it just sort of seems like something a politician might do. Whispers and nods. Of course this happens. That's how it works!

It isn't. Most candidates abide by both the written and the unspoken rules of political campaigns. By implying without presenting any evidence that Cruz did the former, Trump and his allies are violating the latter.

Just another day in 2016.