America’s Sweethearts have broken up. And like most celebrity splits, it was messy.
“I guess the bromance is over,” Donald Trump concluded in an interview on CNN after the Republican debate, reflecting on a relationship that might never be the same again.
Before things fell apart for the star-crossed candidates, Ted Cruz and Trump long had a non-aggression pact. It was sweet; Cruz defended Trump’s outlandish statements when no other Republican would, and Trump staunchly refused to target Cruz because of that goodwill. Trump has started to question whether the Canadian-born Cruz is constitutionally eligible for the presidency, but even that attack was delivered much more politely than anything he’s said to someone like Jeb Bush.
But now whatever alliance Cruz and Trump had has been replaced by all-out war.
In fact, the exchanges between the two rivals did what many thought to be impossible: Cruz made Trump look reasonable and Trump made Cruz look likeable.
It started out with a protracted back-and-forth over Cruz’s birthplace.
“I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa,” Cruz said in response to a question about the new Trump attack. “But the facts and law here are really quite clear. Under longstanding U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural born citizen. If a soldier has a child abroad, that child is a natural born citizen.”
Trump doubled- and tripled-down on his charge that Democrats would use the fact that Cruz was born in Canada to challenge his eligibility. Don’t blame me, he argued; I’m just the bad-news bearer, the teller of tough truths, the keeper of real.
“You saw the numbers yourself, NBC/Wall Street Journal came out with a poll headline, ‘Trump way up, Cruz going down,’” Trump said to boos from the crowd.
“They don’t like NBC, but I like the poll,” he said trying to hush the crowd and project the vitriol elsewhere. “And frankly it just came out and, in Iowa now, as you know, Ted, in the last three polls I’m beating you. So you shouldn’t misrepresent how well you’re doing with the polls.”
Trump glowered throughout their birth certificate back-and-forth, citing Harvard professor Laurence Tribe’s recent Boston Globe op-ed questioning the senator’s eligibility, and noting that other legal scholars had expressed skepticism about it as well. Cruz sounded eager to laugh off the criticism.
“I’m not gonna be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” he said, grinning.
But Trump didn’t crack a smile.
Trump’s demeanor seemed different from how it’s been past debates, where he’s made goofy faces, rolled his eyes theatrically, and made jokes about his Republican rivals—especially when that rival’s name is Jeb. But at the Thursday debate, that affability was nowhere to be found.
Later, though, the tension got even worse. Cruz has recently taken to joking about the fact that Trump is from New York, suggesting that his “New York values” mean he can’t be a good conservative. The issue arose again, and Cruz looked to keep things light.
“Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan,” the senator said. “I’m just saying!”
Trump didn’t look amused, and immediately suggested Cruz’s criticism meant he was being glib about the 9/11 attacks.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Trump said, describing the attack’s aftermath.
“And the people in New York fought, and fought, and fought, and we saw more death and even the smell of death, nobody understood it, and it was with us for months, the smell, the air,” Trump continued. “And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York, and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
As Trump monologued, Cruz looked on in silence, wincing. And he didn’t attempt any retort. It takes a lot to silence a star college debater like Cruz, but Trump got it done.
Back in September, the pair teamed up for a Capitol Hill rally about their shared opposition to the Iran deal. And this summer, sources told The Daily Beast that Cruz was deliberately wooing the real estate mogul.
“In terms of Trump’s civility, if you’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to you,” one source said. “And Cruz has been nice. Cruz is playing the long game and hopes that if he survives and Trump doesn’t, the billionaire will swing to him.”
Trump, in turn, treated Cruz with condescending kindness. In December, Trump even issued an extremely rare retraction after describing Cruz as a “maniac.”
The backlash from conservative talk radio was swift—and Trump quickly relented on his attacks.
“He has a wonderful temperament,” Trump said at the December Republican debate in Las Vegas when moderators pressed him on that criticism. “He’s just fine, don’t worry about it.”
Trump gave Cruz an amicable pat on the back. But that was before Cruz rose past Trump in Iowa and became a threat to the dominance in the polls that Trump boasts about at every campaign rally.
If Cruz lost one friend at this debate, his relationship with another frenemy somehow got worse as Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio continued their feud over their legislative records.
“I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV,” Rubio quipped as he interrupted the Cruz-Trump exchange over Cruz’s citizenship and launched into his platform.
Later, the two launched into a full Itchy and Scratchy routine over whether Rubio was telling the truth about Cruz’s tax plan as well as whether Cruz had flip-flopped over crop insurance.
“I saw you on the Senate floor flip your vote on crop insurance, because they told you it would help you in Iowa,” Rubio charged.
Cruz smiled and then retorted, “I appreciate you dumping your oppo [opposition] research on the debate stage… At least half the things Marco said were false.”
As the crowd boo’d Cruz, Trump—ever the opportunist, saw an opening.
“You think they like each other?” he said.
—with additional reporting by Gideon Resnick