HOUSTON—It was less than three short years ago, when Donald Trump took the stage at a campaign rally on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, and repeated one of his fan’s slurs to describe Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cruz, Trump explained, was a “pussy” for failing to publicly support waterboarding and torture of terror suspects passionately enough.
Flash forward to October 2018, and Trump isn’t calling Cruz a “pussy” anymore; or baselessly accusing Cruz’s father of helping assassinate JFK; or suggesting Cruz’s wife is ugly; or alleging his 2016 adversary has no legal right to be president due to his birthplace.
Instead, Trump flew to Houston on Monday to headline a rally to urge voters to help Cruz hold off Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke. And he did it against the counsel of his political advisers, who assured him that the trip was a waste, since Cruz is the odds-on favorite to win anyway.
But while the two former rivals seem to have patched things up publicly, the relationship can hardly be described as a lovefest. While Trump has warmed to former foes on the right—such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-KY)—Cruz has been kept at a distance. Several sources close to the president said the senator is practically a non-entity when Trump privately talks about friends, allies, lawmakers, and media figures he appreciates.
“Those who know both men believe that they have a transactional relationship that furthers their individual agendas,” Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and Trump ally, told The Daily Beast ahead of Monday’s campaign event. “My guess is that neither man is looking for a bosom buddy in the other but someone they can do business with—which ultimately is what politics is all about.”
Even Monday’s mega-rally suggested that Trump remains unimpressed with his one-time combatant. One White House official said that the president decided to go to Houston in large part because he wanted to bask in his adoring crowds rather than simply turn out Cruz’s.
“Where else is he going to get a crowd [that] gigantic and eager to have him there and speak?” the White House official asked rhetorically. Another source close to Trump said that the president has told people that he believed the Trump-Cruz rally would surely generate “big headlines, big crowd,” and wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, given Cruz and Trump’s famous past hostilities.
Trump did spend some time puffing up Cruz during his lengthy, winding speech. The president acknowledged that the two had “our little difficulties” before adding that, since the election, “nobody has helped me more.”
But, from there, Trump moved on to revving up the crowd with his reliably fact-challenged fear-mongering of the “caravan” of migrants, talking up his tax cuts, sneering at his enemies in the press pen and bragging about the two Supreme Court justices he’s put on the bench. It was a highly formulaic campaign speech, during which Trump seemed more attentive to Rep. Louie Gohmert—the conspiratorial Texas conservative congressman sitting off stage—than the senator for whom, ostensibly, the event had been thrown.
Even in and around the Toyota Center, the mood seemed built around Trump adoration more than Cruz affection. In the morning, the president’s reelection campaign hosted a tailgate with food, drinks, and music in the parking area of the arena. It continued into the night hours to accommodate the overflow crowd of conservatives.
As one of the openers at the rally delivered a brief prayer and railed against “godless socialism,” at least two people audibly punctuated his remarks to shout “Trump!”
Michael Schlabach, a man from Le Grange, Texas, donning a “TRUMP 2020 BITCHES,” said he came to see both men, and didn’t hold Cruz or Trump’s rough words against either of them. “You shit-talk and that’s politics,” he said, saying it’s “no different than a football game, it’s a sport... You want to get in their head.” He compared their hate-love relationship to that of “Kennedy and Johnson.”
Nadia Salvino, a Dallas woman who said she volunteers for the Trump campaign and takes pride in being quoted in the conservative news site The Daily Caller, said the Trump-Cruz tiff must have been nothing more than messy drama for the cameras. “It’s like UFC fights, come on, it’s all for show, come on, man,” she said standing on the floor of the Toyota Center. She described herself as liking both Cruz and Trump, but also stressed that she’s been a “100 percent diehard Trump fan” from the beginning and has been to 10 Trump events.
Mike Lindell, a Trump friend and the CEO of MyPillow, was out in the floor crowd taking selfies with people who recognized him from TV. He was among the many who were here for Donald J. Trump.
“Everybody loves our president; some just don’t know it yet,” he told The Daily Beast, adding he doesn’t yet have a “personal opinion” about Cruz because he hasn’t met him and hasn’t done his “due diligence.”
Asked if he held anything Cruz said about Trump against the Texas senator, Lindell said, “I’m a Christian” and that “people forgive.”
For now, the two politicians want everyone to think that all is indeed forgiven. Whether that’s a matter of genuine affection or mutual political convenience is less clear.
Toward the end of the rally, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale sent out a tweet alerting his followers to text the word “Texas” to a phone number. Doing so wouldn’t bring you to a Cruz donation page or get you on the Senator’s distribution list. Instead, it got you signed up to “receive recurring SMS/MMS messages from Donald J. Trump for President” and the chance to win some signed Trump shwag.