Team Cruz on Trump’s immigration shift: Told you so
The conservative senator, eyes on 2018 and 2020, warned voters Trump was a liberal in disguise.
As Donald Trump soft-pedals his once-hard-line immigration rhetoric, supporters of his vanquished primary foe Ted Cruz have one message for Republican voters: We told you so.
Cruz spent the final months of his unsuccessful presidential primary run arguing that Trump was a not-so-closeted liberal whose conservative language on immigration was not to be trusted. Now, Trump says he is open to “softening” the approach to some undocumented immigrants already in this country, a departure from his previous calls for a deportation force.
And as Ted Cruz eyes his 2018 reelection bid, with some of his supporters holding out hopes for a 2020 presidential run, Cruz world feels vindicated.
"Everything Trump promises comes with an expiration date,” said Cruz’s former Senate communications director, Amanda Carpenter. “We knew it during the primary, and now it is apparent he has duped his most loyal supporters on the issue they care about most, immigration. Don't say we didn't warn them."
The Texas senator has been dealing with plenty of political fallout of his own after refusing to endorse Trump in his speech at the Republican National Convention, a move that generated anger among Trump supporters nationally and has stoked chatter of a primary challenge against Cruz in Texas.
But Trump’s rhetorical contortions on immigration this week are giving Cruz supporters in and around his orbit more hope that anger over the RNC speech, and over his broader opposition to Trump, will fade. They are optimistic that the deeply conservative Cruz will emerge from November looking prescient in his warnings that Trump couldn’t be trusted to defend core GOP values, and say that Trump’s shifting on immigration language this week only proves Cruz’s point.
"It vindicates the speech, it vindicates what Ted Cruz warned would happen during the course of the campaign,” said Chris Wilson, the director of research, analytics and digital strategy on Cruz’s campaign and a top Cruz adviser who has always argued that the RNC speech would be remembered favorably. He went on to add, “I do think, yes, the immigration point is another data point that he was right, it’s another data point that leads people to understand Ted Cruz knew what he was talking about, he was making the right decision.”
Over the past several days, Trump’s position on immigration has become muddled. While the Republican nominee was once staunchly in favor of deportation forces that would target undocumented immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin, he appears to have backed off that position somewhat, likening his view now to that of President Barack Obama.
“What people don't know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country,” Trump said on Fox News on Monday night, noting that he was going to focus on removing “the bad ones.” “Bush, the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I'm going to do the same thing."
He added later that he would do so “perhaps with a lot more energy.”
Asked by Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Tuesday whether accommodations would be made for “those people that contribute to society, have been law-abiding, have kids here,” Trump replied, “There certainly can be a softening, because we're not looking to hurt people.”
His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said on CNN over the weekend that it is “to be determined” whether Trump still backs a deportation force. He postponed an immigration-related speech that was planned for Thursday in Colorado as he continues to speak to people “to understand how to execute on those ideas,” Conway said on Fox News earlier this week.
Cruz backers are quick to characterize Trump’s emerging position as amnesty.
“From what I have seen, he is now the pro-amnesty candidate,” said Rick Tyler, a former campaign communications director for Cruz. “If Trump is insistent on reversing himself on amnesty, then he will have fooled his entire base. He would have fooled enough people who voted for him to make him the Republican nominee. It’s deceitful; it was a betrayal.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, though in an interview with Hannity on Wednesday, Trump insisted, “There's no amnesty, as such; there's no amnesty, but we work with them.”
Trump certainly has defenders. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, one of the country’s most prominent anti-illegal immigration hard-liners, has backed up Trump. Iowa Rep. Steve King, another ultraconservative immigration hawk who previously supported Cruz, also gave Trump the benefit of the doubt, though he warned that it would be a “mistake” to more dramatically change positions.
“I’m not really surprised by it, and I don’t think he’ll lose any supporters,” said Stephen Cox, a friend of Cruz’s, about Trump’s shifting tone. “Maybe Ann Coulter will be upset.”
But Cruz’s backers dosay they think Trump’s rhetorical adjustment justifies Cruz’s refusal to endorse him, having instead urged Republicans to vote their “conscience.”
“What it bolsters is why some of Trump’s supporters felt the need to boo Ted Cruz when he told them to vote their conscience up and down the ballot, though he never mentioned Trump’s name,” said Steve Deace, an influential conservative Iowa radio host who helped Cruz win the Iowa caucuses. “It … proves their own consciences knew when they were going against their belief system. It proves Ted Cruz was right not to waste political capital on a lost cause, the way some other people have in this campaign.”
Outside of Cruz’s network of supporters, not everyone sees it that way.
After Cruz exited the primary earlier this year, many close to him were already hoping for a 2020 presidential bid. But he has found himself with more immediate challenges: Cruz’s RNC speech sparked fierce anger among rank-and-file Republicans who said he needed to get in line behind the nominee, and who see his stand against Trump as a political calculation, not a principled stand.
At a delegation breakfast the morning after his address in Cleveland, Texas delegates who know Cruz best engaged in anguished, heated exchanges with each other, as some defended Cruz’s decision and others derided it as selfish and self-interested, urging him to get in line for the good of the party.
The level of anger that has lingered in Texas since then has caught both supporters and detractors of Cruz off guard, say people looking at his 2018 Senate race. And it has generated chatter, with varying degrees of seriousness, about a possible primary challenge, with names including Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick being batted about. One poll also showed former Gov. Rick Perry, a Trump critic-turned-ardent supporter, beating Cruz in a primary contest, and Trump talked up Perry during a Texas fundraising swing on Tuesday.
Cruz’s post-campaign argument — especially a possible future presidential argument — will hinge in large part on how Trump does: If the Republican nominee gets blown out by Hillary Clinton, his orbit hopes Cruz will have looked wise. Plenty of people in Texas, however, also believe that Cruz will be pilloried for not doing everything he could to stop Clinton.
“There will be some people within our base — it’s hard to quantify how many — that, if things don’t work out in November, will blame every Republican who didn’t support the nominee, so it’s still a negative for him,” said Steve Munisteri, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas who is now advising the Republican National Committee.
If Trump wins, he continued, then Cruz “has a bigger problem, because if you have a President Trump, there’s a chance a President Trump could endorse in a primary in 2018, or try to recruit somebody to run against him. … I still think he’s a strong favorite to win a primary in Texas. I would just say he didn’t help himself by doing it.”
Meantime, Cruz is now focused on shoring up support again in Texas, spending significant time holding meetings and attending events in the state.
But if Trump loses, the animating argument of Cruz’s presidential candidacy — that Republicans lose when they don’t nominate conservatives — will remain intact, his supporters say.
“It’s a mistake by the Trump campaign; it seems to be this attitude that the way to win a presidential campaign is to follow the playbook the Republicans enacted over the last few cycles: move to the middle during the general election,” Wilson said. “It’s not the campaign Ted Cruz would have run. It’s why we said from the very beginning, to win a general election, we need to nominate a conservative.”