Ted Cruz has long had a public reputation as an unctuous asshole. Even so, his staffers have tended to hold him in high regard as a kind and geeky man who treated his underlings well even while his fellow senators loathed him. Now, though, “most of Cruzworld is pretty disgusted” with the senator for choosing to back Donald Trump’s absurd claims of widespread election fraud, in the words of one former aide. As another former aide put it, “Everyone is upset with the direction things have gone, and the longer they’ve been with the senator, the more distaste they are expressing.”
Intelligencer spoke to more than half a dozen former Cruz staffers who have spent the past week trying to reconcile the man they once believed in with the politician they saw on January 6 when — hours after a mob tore through the Capitol — Cruz voted to throw out electoral votes from states that voted for Joe Biden, just as the rioters and Trump wanted. They say their former boss has become unrecognizable to them.
They have asked themselves and each other how the candidate who began his political career as an unwavering “constitutional conservative” could allow himself to fall in line with Trump’s fraudulent and delusional election challenge; how the man they once viewed as deeply principled has been so willing to behave so cravenly. When Cruz first ran for the Senate in 2011, he boasted about fighting against the Bush administration in court as Texas’s solicitor general to make clear his willingness to stand up to politicians from either party when they violated the Constitution.
“Personally, it’s painful. It sucks,” that former Cruz aide told Intelligencer. “We’ve always backed him because the country deserves principled conservative leadership … I’d say he got unlucky the Capitol was stormed by a mob, but in reality he placed himself at the political mercy of others.”
Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz aide in his Senate office, told Intelligencer: “The biggest conversation I’ve had with fellow Cruz supporters is, ‘Was he always this way or did he change?’” Carpenter, who has become a vocal Trump critic, said she “could have never imagined that he could have gone down this road” and that she could have never envisioned that the political career of a legal scholar with a reverence for the Constitution would “culminate in a stand to potentially cancel votes in a way that defied any standards of federalism and constitutionalism.”
Another former Cruz aide pointed to an earlier reason for his change: his loss to Trump for president in the 2016 race and the backlash to his speech at the Republican National Convention that year where he urged Republicans to “vote their conscience.” The next morning, Cruz was booed and heckled at a gathering of Texas delegates to the RNC who viewed his comments as a rebuke and betrayal of Trump. “That’s when things started to get wobbly,” said the former Cruz aide. At that point, one former aide said, “I think blind ambition started to get the better of him after coming so close in 2016 then having to endure Trumpism’s takeover of the party. Psychologically, after he lost in ’16, he must have watched Trump’s messaging to his core base and concluded that maybe this group of voters he needed were going to be more receptive to a message like that.”
Cruz waited to endorse Trump until late September 2016 and has been behind the president ever since. He has dismissed Trump’s vile personal attacks on him during the 2016 primary when Trump called his wife ugly and accused his Cuban-born father of being part of a supposed conspiracy that killed John F. Kennedy. Since all that, Cruz has walked back his fervent criticism of Trump as “a pathological liar” and “utterly amoral.” Cruz continued to be so eager to court Trump’s favor that he even offered via Twitter to represent the president before the Supreme Court in a scurrilous election lawsuit about the 2020 election.
Others suggested that his character hasn’t changed but that it has simply been revealed.
Rick Tyler, a former top spokesman on Cruz’s presidential campaign, pointed to a moment early in the 2016 campaign in which he saw the Texas senator betray political principle for expediency. At the time, Cruz abandoned his longstanding support for free trade because he saw political advantage in opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “That’s Ted Cruz, that’s who Ted Cruz is,” Tyler said. “He will abandon principle, he will abandon conservative values for expediency, and you’re seeing it again, only more dangerous.”
Chad Sweet, a close personal friend of Cruz who served as his campaign chairman in 2016, publicly broke with him after he objected to electoral votes. “Donald Trump and those who aided and abetted him in his relentless undermining of our democracy — including Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz — must be denounced,” Sweet wrote in a LinkedIn post. “In moments like this, all freedom-loving Americans must put the survival of our democracy above loyalty to any party or individual.” Lauren Blair Bianchi, the communications director in his Senate office, resigned after Cruz’s objection to counting Arizona’s pro-Biden electors.
One comparison repeatedly brought up in Cruz’s orbit is that of Representative Chip Roy, the Texas senator’s former chief of staff. An ardent conservative, Roy vocally opposed the Republican effort to throw out electoral votes in swing states that voted for Biden as an attempt “to unconstitutionally insert Congress into the center of the presidential election process.”
In conversations with former Cruz aides, it was suggested Cruz’s objections were motivated by one thing and one thing only: the desire to outflank Senator Josh Hawley in the 2024 Republican presidential primary for the Trump base. As one former senior White House official put it, “Ted for sure thought that Hawley had jumped the line, like, ‘How dare you!’” After all, Cruz’s presidential ambitions have long been a topic of discussion among his alumni. “We’ve all talked about 2024, it never left the discussion,” said a former aide. ”From the moment he dropped out of the race [in 2016], the organization was building for 2020. Now, none of us are certain where the path is to 2024.”
In the meantime, the former aide pointed out that Cruz is left in a political trap of his own making for any future presidential bids. “After you’ve gone all in on Trump this many times, that’s your only move left. There’s no room to try to throw it in reverse and find a spot where you can pick and choose what you like about the last four years. Those seats are taken, and there’s plenty of new candidates still getting on the bus that won’t have baggage with them.”
Cruz’s attempts to appeal to Trump’s base didn’t even impress those in the outgoing president’s orbit. The former senior White House official was scornful of the effort. “I think Cruz has tried at different times to be an ally to the president. For somebody so rough on him before. But he now has shown himself to be a craven, calculating politician and somebody who incited — arguably, he helped incite this. That’s what everyone got out of this.”
“He’s supposed to be a smart asshole,” said the former top Trump aide. “That’s where there’s a bit of consternation for me. He’s totally misguided by his own bullshit. He buys into his bullshit more than other people. He’s supposed to at least be a smart, savvy asshole.”
For Cruz, it’s a return to a familiar role in some ways. As one former aide put it: “He really believes he’s an outsider. He psychologically thinks like an outsider and feels most comfortable taking up the political causes of outsiders.” But at this point, it’s not fellow Ivy League graduates or fellow senators ready to cast him out — it’s the people who have spent years of their lives in service of his ambitions. That doesn’t make him an outsider anymore, just alone.