Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was not about to let an upstart like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) outmaneuver him in pandering to President Donald Trump’s base of support. So when Hawley announced a few days before Congress met to affirm the 2020 electoral college votes that he would object to the vote totals from Pennsylvania, Cruz put together a contingent of senators to make the same promise.

The group, Cruz’s office explained in a statement, was “acting not to thwart the democratic process, but rather to protect it.” That assurance, buried at the bottom of the lengthy missive, was meant to address the obvious concern that blocking the counting of electoral votes ran the (infinitesimal) risk of derailing the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who, by all objective accounts, had clearly won the race. But Cruz and the gang insisted that because the election “featured unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, violations and lax enforcement of election law, and other voting irregularities,” they had no choice but to throw up the stop sign.

It’s important now as it was then to point out that utterly unfounded allegations of fraud and irregularities — like those raised in the months after the 2020 election — are better addressed by confronting the false claims directly and confronting those spreading them. But when the person propagating the falsehoods has an energetic base of millions of supporters, it’s much easier politically to simply treat them as valid, to try to figure out a way to both treat those unserious claims as serious and also maintain a sober distance from the nonsense. Cruz’s “we must lamentably and futilely object” approach was the narrow path he chose to walk.

As protesters gathered outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 — motivated by Trump’s rhetoric and, perhaps in some cases, by Cruz’s and Hawley’s — Cruz stood on the Senate floor to make his case.

“Let me be clear,” Cruz said in his speech on that day: “I am not arguing for setting aside the result of this election.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) spoke from the Senate floor on Jan. 6, before the process to certify electoral college votes was disrupted by a mob of Trump supporters. (The Washington Post)

No, he was just arguing that it was “a profound threat to this country and to the legitimacy of any administrations that will come in the future” that so many people believed the election had been stolen, a claim elevated by Trump and coddled directly and through inaction by people like Cruz. He worried that not objecting to Biden’s win would send a message that “voter fraud doesn’t matter, isn’t real and shouldn’t be taken seriously.”

The reality, of course, is that there has been no demonstrated voter fraud sufficiently widespread to affect any major election and, in fact, fraud is extremely uncommon. Claims that it is real or a subject of concern for senators considering a presidential election should, in fact, not be taken seriously.

But you see what Cruz is doing. He’s trying to send a message to Trump’s base that he’s with them and that he agrees with their concerns while maintaining deniability with official Washington. Cruz knows that the fraud allegations are unfounded and he knows Biden won, but he also knows that Republican voters don’t believe either of those things. So he came up with a way of winking at the base while nodding at the establishment.

And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling cameras.

On Thursday, Cruz joined Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin at a rally in Chesterfield, Va. At one point, Cruz joined members of the audience for photographs.

A woman wearing a camouflage hat approached Cruz and confronted him about the election results, as captured in video posted by activist Lauren Windsor. (Update: Windsor confirmed on Twitter that she was the woman in the video.)

“Wondering why you didn’t do more to fight for President Trump on Jan. 6,” she says to Cruz.

“Well,” he responds, “I led the objection but the Senate voted it down.”

“But you could have done more,” she continues. “I mean, we all know that Joe Biden didn’t win this election. I know in my heart of hearts that Joe Biden did not win this election.”

“I led the fight,” Cruz insists. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to have the votes on the floor of the Senate.”

Senator, this is not the claim you made on Jan. 6. On that day, you were very clear that you were not objecting to Biden’s election but, instead, hoping to spend more time addressing the concerns of voters. You were very clear that you were not simply trying to enact the will of Trump’s supporters by introducing a barrier to the counting of electoral votes. You said then that your desired outcome was solely to assuage the unfounded concerns of people like that woman in Virginia.

This was obviously dishonest at the time, but it was still what Cruz presented as his argument.

Cruz was one of the last speakers before the Senate chamber was evacuated of legislators and rioters swarmed in. They did more to fight for Trump on that day, exercising violence and vandalism to achieve the same outcome Cruz sought, delaying the counting of electoral votes.

When the woman approached him on Thursday, Cruz could have objected to her false claim that Biden didn’t win. He could have clarified for her that his goal on Jan. 6 was simply to spend more time evaluating the sanctity of the vote, even though there was no reason to do so. But instead Cruz tried to leverage his actions that day in exactly the way that he’d always intended: they were his way to tell Trump voters that he’d fought on their behalf.

And so he did.