Great hopes for Republicans uniting behind the contentious presidential nomination of Donald Trump fractured on Wednesday evening when Texas Senator Ted Cruz pointedly refused to endorse Trump – causing extraordinary scenes on the floor of the GOP convention, and backstage – in the usually decorous donor suites.
Cruz was assailed by delegates, many booing and angrily waving their fists while others accused him of treachery, when instead of urging a vote for Trump, Cruz told Americans to vote with their conscience – at the end of a speech in which he implicitly rejected Trump and much of what he stands for.
Casino Billionaire Sheldon Adelson, long cultivated by Cruz, is said to have angrily barred the Texas senator from his donor suite and Cruz’s wife was lashed as a “traitor” after she was hustled from the convention floor “for her own safety”.
Conforming to the crisis-a-day format of this convention, this re-eruption of the Trump-Cruz hostilities from the deeply personal and bitter contest between them during the primary season overshadowed a night on which the feature event was to be the introduction to voters of Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence.
That Pence made what observers judged to be one of the better speeches to date in the convention was lost as a wave of tumult and anger worked the cavernous convention centre and a losing would-be nominee made himself the centre of attention.
“Everybody was expecting this would be the beginning of the healing process…instead, Cruz ripped the scab right off,” Michigan delegate Kathy Berden said of the destructive force of Cruz’s performance in a comment to The New York Times.
Inadvertently setting the scene for Cruz, conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham took a stab at the 16 losers from the primary contest when she appealed for unity, telling the convention with ill-concealed sarcasm: “We should all – even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos – pledge to support Donald Trump now”.
Failed nominee turned Trump acolyte, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, lashed out at Cruz, charging: “It was an awful, selfish speech by someone who tonight, through the words he said on that stage, showed everybody why he has richly earned the reputation [of being the most disliked senator] that he has on Capitol Hill.”
Cruz was artful in his speech, which Trump later acknowledged he had read in advance – but just a couple of hours before delivery.Many in the crowd were electrified by Cruz’s impassioned run-through of all that he had to say during the primaries, which he finished with these lines: “If you love our country …stand and speak and vote your conscience – vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
Some delegates read Cruz’s use of the word “conscience” as a coded reference to Monday’s failed challenge to the convention rules, which sought to have a conscience vote on who the nominee should be, which would have freed delegates from their commitment to vote Trump in line with the result of the primary vote in the respective states.The convention then erupted in a war of chants – “Ted! Ted! Ted!” by delegates from Utah, Washington and Arizona; and “Endorse Trump” and “Keep the pledge” from pro-Trump delegations – especially those from New York who remain embittered by Cruz’s derisory comments in the past about New York values.
“Keep the pledge” was a reminder of an undertaking by all 17 who sought the nomination to support the eventual winner. Cruz tried to make light of the initial outbursts, observing drily: “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.””I can’t believe he didn’t endorse Trump,” Cecilia C De Baca, a Trump delegate from New Mexico, told The Washington Post. “Maybe Donald Trump was right. Maybe he is Lyin’ Ted. Maybe he picks the Bible up and maybe he puts it down and then he lies, because any Christian would forgive.”
The collapse midway through the primaries of a Trump-Cruz non-aggression pact, included Trump brutally mocking Cruz’s wife Heidi’s physical appearance and speculating that Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination. Retaliating, Cruz branded Trump “utterly amoral”, “a serial philanderer” and “a pathological liar”.The sense of an angry showdown at the convention was heightened by Trump stealing Cruz’s thunder towards the end of his speech – as Cruz hit his rhetorical crescendo, a stone-faced Trump arrived on the convention floor, prompting great cheering and drawing the TV cameras away from Cruz as Trump gave a thumbs-up salute to the delegates which was read as encouragement for the crowd to go after Cruz.
For much of the convention it’s seemed that the only unifying force in the GOP is a visceral hatred of presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – on Wednesday evening there were more “lock her up” choruses. But ahead of Cruz’s demolition derby, others had sought to salve the wounds inflicted during the primaries.
In a video hook-up from Florida, Senator Marco Rubio said: “After a long and spirited primary, the time for fighting each other is over. It’s time to come together and fight for a new direction for America. It’s time to win in November.”
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, licking his own wounds after being passed over in the “veep” stakes, attempted to smooth over the differences, by deconstructing Cruz’s language – “Ted Cruz said: ‘You can vote your conscience for anyone who will uphold the Constitution’. In this election, there is only one candidate who will uphold the Constitution.”
A senior GOP official denounced the Cruz speech as “a cheap shot”; another said it was “classless”.
Retiring Indiana Senator Dan Coates was furious: “Senator Cruz tried to destroy the Republican party tonight just like he’s tried to destroy the Republican caucus”. And in ripping into Cruz, Christie declared: “I don’t understand how someone can present themselves as a person of integrity and then come into this room tonight and give that cute speech – and that was cute”.
Trump tweeted: “Wow, Ted Cruz got booed off the stage, didn’t honour the pledge! I saw his speech two hours early but let him speak anyway. No big deal!”