If you tried to script an interview that epitomized the GOP’s post-Jan. 6 evolution, its subjugation to its more extreme elements and its rewriting of its own narrative of the Capitol riot, you would struggle to do better than Sen. Ted Cruz’s interview with Tucker Carlson on Thursday night.
So Cruz appeared on Carlson’s show Thursday night to back down, take his medicine and hopefully move on.
It did not go so well. But it did provide an extremely apt picture of the current state of the post-Jan. 6 GOP — on the evening of the anniversary of Jan. 6, no less.
Carlson began the interview by positing that Cruz had “lied” about the events being a terrorist attack. And Cruz instantly signaled contrition.
“The way I phrased things yesterday — it was sloppy, and it was, frankly, dumb,” Cruz began.
Carlson cut him off, though. He said he didn’t believe Cruz and that Cruz — a highly trained lawyer — couldn’t possibly have been so sloppy with his choice of words.
“I don’t buy that,” Carlson said. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t buy that.”
The thing is: Carlson shouldn’t have bought it. This, after all, was hardly the first time Cruz had labeled Jan. 6 a terrorist attack. He did so Jan. 7, 2021 — “a despicable act of terrorism” — and in a Jan. 8, 2021, tweet. He did so in a local news interview published Jan. 8, as well.
Even more than four months after the riot, while voting against the creation of a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission, Cruz was still using that word. “The January 6 terrorist attack on the Capitol was a dark moment in our nation’s history,” Cruz’s May 28 statement began.
That is, indeed, a lot of slipping up to do — over a long time — for a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer. Cruz’s sudden backtracking is pretty much a case in point in the GOP’s long-standing effort to disown its previous acknowledgments that Jan. 6 was as bad as it was — along with Donald Trump’s culpability. This wasn’t him slipping up; this was him deciding that the talking point was no longer welcome.
Cruz continued to try to save the interview. He said he wasn’t talking about Trump supporters writ large or the peaceful protesters of Jan. 6. Of course, no one had argued that Cruz was talking about anyone other than those engaging in violence. And again, Carlson — whatever you think of him — rightfully cut in and said Cruz’s explanation didn’t make sense.
Cruz proceeded to say that he has long labeled those who attack police officers as terrorists, and that’s merely what he was doing here. Carlson was again unimpressed and argued — again, validly! — that people who attack police officers should be put in jail, but that doesn’t make them terrorists.
Carlson then ventured on to some more characteristically shaky logical and rhetorical ground. He suggested that Cruz was playing into Trump critics’ hands by giving them license to apply words like “terrorist” to all Trump supporters.
On this point, he and Cruz reached something of an accord — albeit temporarily. Cruz acknowledged that part of the reason he was pulling an about-face on the T-word was because of “a year of Democrats and the media twisting words and trying to say that all of us are terrorists.”
The solution to this is apparently to stop saying what Cruz really thinks — and something he has made clear he thinks on multiple occasions — about the people who attacked the Capitol.
The accord just as quickly fell apart. Carlson argued that people had been distorting Jan. 6 for a long time, and Cruz — a focus of plenty of very early criticism for his leading role in objecting to the election results that day — would have known that as well as anyone. Which, if you accept Carlson’s premise, again makes a lot of sense.
“I guess I just don’t believe you,” Carlson said.
The interview had it all. Here was the runner-up for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination appearing on the airwaves of a Jan. 6 conspiracy theorist, who instantly made clear who had the real power in their relationship. (Cruz even acknowledged that he sought out the interview shortly after seeing what Carlson had said Wednesday night.) Rather than truly defending himself, Cruz meekly tried to explain away his repeated comments, and that same host wasn’t having it. The host literally began the interview by calling Cruz a liar — repeatedly — and Cruz didn’t even directly dispute the premise.
The end result was a U.S. senator who, as Carlson rightly notes, knows how to choose his words carefully and would have been well familiar with how such words could be supposedly misconstrued — including in this specific set of circumstances — effectively groveling and hoping to get a pass. That pass never arrived. But Cruz promoted the video on social media, anyway.
The interview ultimately turned to friendlier topics, like speculating about whether a person present at the Capitol who was encouraging violence on Jan. 6 was an FBI informant — a hobbyhorse of Carlson’s that has often gone awry. Cruz concluded it by saying of the alleged efforts to tarnish Trump supporters, “I’m the one leading the fight in the Senate against this garbage.”
If he wasn’t before, he surely is now — even if it means not saying what he really thinks and disowning what he said before. The situation demands it.