Will Ted Cruz Ever Be Forgiven?

“Sir, I’m not going to engage in a screaming fight.” At breakfast with the archvillain of the RNC.

Sen. Ted Cruz delivers his nonendorsement of Donald Trump on Wednesday in Cleveland.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

CLEVELAND—“He acts like he’s new to politics,” a peeved Rep. Pete Sessions was saying. Sessions was talking about Ted Cruz and Cruz’s supposedly wounded feelings Thursday morning, and for the second time in 12 hours, Sessions found himself pissed off at his Texas colleague.

We were speaking after a Texas delegation breakfast in downtown Cleveland, where in front of a roomful of angry delegates from his home state, Cruz had just finished defending his decision not to endorse Trump. Sessions, a leader in the House, had sat stone-faced throughout.

“Ted wants to justify his own actions in a way that I am sure is honorable. But in the process of being honorable, you can dishonor the greater good,” Sessions told me. “Ted wants his ideas to be more powerful than the team’s. And I am for the team.” Sessions has served in the Texas congressional delegation with Cruz for nearly four years. “It is very consistent behavior.”

After the stunt Cruz pulled the previous night, this conference room in a downtown Marriott was perhaps the only place in Cleveland that might have let him in the door unharmed. That didn’t mean he’d be unconditionally embraced, though.

“You have the right, and even the duty, to hold me accountable,” Cruz began. “That’s why I’m here this morning. It would be the easiest thing in the world to turn tail and run. But that ain’t gonna happen.”

Anyone who expected Cruz to apologize for or amend his nonendorsement knows absolutely nothing about Ted Cruz. He feeds on the enmity of his political peers or those he would deem less principled than he. It’s exactly what his supporters love and his detractors hate about him. Though the group of folks gathered at the Marriott may all be supporters when his targets are, say, Mitch McConnell or Barack Obama, they broke down into heated factions over Trump.

“Last night, when I addressed the convention, I addressed the convention because Donald Trump asked me to,” he explained. “And when Donald asked me to, he didn’t ask me to endorse. And indeed three days ago I talked on the phone with him and told him, ‘I’m not going to endorse you.’ ”

“WHY NOT?” a delegate shouted out.

“That’s right!” someone seconded.

“Sir, I’m happy to answer that, but I’m not going to engage in a screaming fight,” Cruz responded.

After saying his piece, in which he noted how “dismaying” it was to hear pro-Trump delegates boo a line that suggested voters should obey their consciences and vote for candidates who will uphold the Constitution, Cruz moved to questions.

At first, he seemed to leave open the possibility of one day supporting Trump: He was merely a spectator, he suggested, and he would adjust his stance as events developed. “I am watching, and listening, to make that decision” about which candidate he’ll eventually support. He did clarify that he will not be voting for Hillary Clinton, though, and he promised not to campaign against Trump or lob missiles his way.

But his dispassionate constitutionalist shtick—as if he were waiting for Trump to clarify his position on the 10th Amendment or whatever—didn’t last long under duress. Attendees soon heard what this was really about, or at least to what Cruz had shifted his excuse as questioning went on and became more heated.

“You signed a pledge that said you would support the party nominee,” another delegate, former La Marque Mayor Geraldine Sam, said to him. “You’ve said your word is your bond. And if you didn’t believe it … you shouldn’t have said it. I supported you, and I expected you to keep your word and say that your word is your bond.”

“Hear, hear!” a nearby delegate shouted. Another let out a loud whistle, and the room broke out in applause.

“Thank you for speaking, and speaking from your heart,” Cruz said warmly before transmogrifying into his more lawyerly self.

“I’ll tell you the day that pledge was abrogated,” he said. “The day that was abrogated was the day this became personal. … I’m not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father. And that pledge was not a blanket commitment that if you go and slander and attack Heidi, that I’m gonna nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say, ‘Thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father.’ ” The crowd seemed to soften. The chivalrous Texan appeal to honor was resonating with a large chunk of the crowd.

Geraldine Sam was not among them. An older black woman, she waved off Cruz’s excuses about Trump dishonoring his family. “I was called the N-word—‘How’d that N-word get into office?’ My life was threatened while I was mayor of La Marque. I still support my city, I still support the citizens of my city, I still walk around with a smile on my face.”

She continued, irritated: “My family was called words” far worse than anything Trump said about Cruz or his family. “The black community, people were hung on trees, but we’re here. We were tarred and feathered for the right to read. My mother, when she grew up, could neither read nor write because it was against the law for her to read and write. Guess what: We grew up. And that’s what it’s all about.” She’ll never support Cruz again.

As arguments broke out in the hallway outside the ballroom, sometimes with tears streaming down the faces of conflicted delegates, Rep. Michael Burgess, also in attendance, tried to make sense of the mess. He has a bond with Cruz and looked at the situation with a little more empathy than Sessions.

“I was a Cruz supporter when he first ran for Senate,” Burgess said. “I think I was the only one in the Texas delegation who supported him—certainly the only one who was returning [to Congress] to support him, maybe Ron Paul did as well.” Burgess is a “believer in his ability to fight and stand up and do what he believes is the right thing.”

He paused. “After the primary in Indiana, I had hoped that there could be a détente of some sort between the Trump camp and the Cruz camp. I think the wounds are too deep and too fresh, and I think that’s what we heard this morning.”

“I’ve run political races before,” he continued. “I’ve said things that were phrased inartfully. I’ve said things that I would’ve liked to have taken back. But that’s not part of it. You can’t do that.”

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.