Inside Ted Cruz's ill-fated non-endorsement of Donald Trump

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz told Trump beforehand of his decision not to endorse
  • But a Trump aide -- a former Cruz staffer -- made one last pitch to the senator

Cleveland (CNN)The aide who left Ted Cruz thought he could win him back.

Cruz personally told Donald Trump Tuesday that he would not endorse him from the dais on Wednesday night. In Trump's campaign, there was a glimmer of hope that his mind could be changed, that if the right messenger delivered the right appeal at the right time, that Trump could: unify the Republican Party.
So Jason Miller, who a month ago spurned some Cruz associates by leaving his circle for the payroll of their arch-rival, picked up the phone.
    "Mr. Trump would really appreciate it -- he would remember it -- if we endorsed," Miller told his former boss, Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe, in Roe's retelling.
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      Cruz: I won't support those who attack my wife


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    "'I hear ya,'" Roe said.
    A half-hour later, Cruz's team sent their speech around. No endorsement. Three hours later, Cruz wrapped up his remarks to jeers in the Quicken Loans Arena. No endorsement.
    And with that, Cruz, 45, placed an extraordinarily risky bet on how the next four years will unfold, cementing his stature as a chief Trump antagonist.
    At best, Cruz will emerge from 2016 as the noble saint who refused to give in to Trump — a man who belittled Cruz, his wife and his father -- despite enormous political pressure. And at the worst, he will be a powerless doubter of a Republican president -- or alternatively, a scapegoat that made a President Hillary Clinton possible.
    But no matter its wisdom, the snub of Trump is sure to be a career-defining moment.
    "Most party leadership expects you to support the ticket. And people will remember who didn't," said Steve Munisteri, the former chair of the Texas GOP and an ally of Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. "It's a very unusual strategy to try to make a favorable impression for 2020."
    The view from the floor when the RNC turned on Ted Cruz
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      The view from the floor when the RNC turned on Ted Cruz


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    Cruz advisers are surprised at how "intense" the reaction has been in the 24 hours after Cruz and his wife, Heidi, were escorted off the convention floor out of concern for their safety. Much of the Republican establishment, including the typically-neutral Republican National Committee, has excoriated him as a self-important holdout who refuses to put his ambition to rest. A man Cruz has courted for years, megadonor Sheldon Adelson, embarrassed him by preventing him from entering his private suite here. Adelson's aide followed by tweeting out a picture of the Las Vegas casino magnate with Trump.
    Yet the most meaningful consequence was on full display 12 hours later at the downtown Marriott here, where an angry and frustrated Republican base from Texas turned on him in a dramatic and emotional attempt to convince him to back his party's nominee. Cruz won applause and respect from the crowd. But because of his defiance, it was clear that he had lost some of his political base.
    "I did not anticipate that," Roe told reporters after his candidate was repeatedly heckled and shouted at by Cruz fans-turned-critics. "I don't see a political advantage."
    At a closed-door donor meeting Thursday, Trump joked at Cruz's expense, one attendee said. Another reported that Trump "absolutely laid into" the Texas senator.
    The sentiment was "why can't he live up to his word?" and back Trump like he pledged to do through that RNC pledge.

    The art of the deal

    Two weeks ago, when Cruz retreated to a back room in Washington with Trump and won a speaking slot without having to endorse the New York billionaire, Cruz aides and allies heralded him as the winner of a deal in which he forfeited little. The teams agreed to not work against one another, and Cruz and Trump seemed on a path to reconciliation, even if not an endorsement.
    The Cruz and Trump teams talked every few days to lessen tension, according to Roe: No, Cruz's aides were not working to unbind the delegates. No, Cruz did not want his name submitted on the convention floor as a possible nominee.
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    Donald Trump, Jr., acknowledged the teams kept in touch. There were "certainly high-level talks and I was in some of them but I don't know that it matters, you know, it was tough and we were the better man," he told CNN's Erin Burnett.
    But in Cruz's circle, an endorsement was never in the offing. Cruz was working with his team until the very end to balance his ambitions and 2020 against the need to speak his mind in 2016, but there was little reason to expect that Cruz would endorse the man who attacked his family repeatedly.
    On the morning of the speech, Trump's campaign chairman Paul Manafort was predicting to media that Cruz would treat Trump kindly in his remarks. But he hadn't yet seen a draft, giving Cruz's speech a veneer of mystery.
    Cruz was putting the finishing touches on his remarks when Trump and aides landed in Ohio. On the ground, Cruz was encouraging his slate of delegates that they should vote their "conscience," comments that got little exposure given the humor of Trump's plane landing over Shooter's Bar at the same time as Cruz gingerly outlined his uneasiness about a Trump presidency.
    Hours later, those code words -- "vote your conscience" -- would ignite a political firestorm.
    Cruz had told Trump in their Monday phone call that he would not endorse him, according to Roe. Yet at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Miller called -- to no avail. Miller declined to comment.
    At 6:30, Roe's team sent over the remarks, including the conscience language and a brief congratulations at the beginning meant to soothe any doubts about Cruz's intentions.
    "I assume there's a reason that Donald wanted me to speak," Cruz told the Texas delegates on Thursday, predicting that he eyed Cruz as an emissary to the conservative movement. "In that speech last night, I did not say a single negative word about Donald Trump."
    That's not how the Trump campaign took it. His floor whips were seen actively encouraging booing on the convention floor, and Trump paraded onto the convention floor as Cruz was still wrapping up his remarks, flashing a grin and a thumbs-up as the Republican Party rallied to him -- not to Cruz..

    Political firestorm

    Immediately, it was clear that the blowback to Cruz's comments were severe. Security swooped in on the Cruzes to keep them safe from unhappy delegates. Adelson rejected them at the door to his suite. And a person who visited Cruz later that night described him as "surprised" and "shocked" by the volume and tone of the repudiation.
    Cruz and his team then headed to a donor meeting with his staff at a hotel, before the aides departed and huddled on their own. Cruz retired to his hotel, logged on Twitter and read coverage of his remarks.
    "I was severely disappointed and have blasted Ted and his team in emails for the idiotic selfish stance he has taken," said Doug Deason, a major donor to Cruz from Texas who has now become a major donor to Trump. "My hope is that he realizes what he has done and endorses Trump today or tomorrow."
    It didn't happen Thursday. Before the Texas delgation, Cruz withstood taunt after taunt, outburst after outburst, as he tried to defend his position as a principled stand. About two-thirds of the delegates consistently applauded. But the vocal minority badgered him repeatedly, and Cruz at times grew agitated about demands that he rush as a "servile puppy" to Trump's beck and call.
    But it could, to Deason's delight, still happen tomorrow. Aides stressed Thursday that Cruz has closed no door, and that a Trump endorsement remains a very real possibility. Cruz aides said he would be willing to meet with Trump in the future despite the tension, and shared that he himself wants to work through their ideological differences, even if Cruz considers any pledge to do so to be "abrogated."
    "I don't intend to criticize Donald," Cruz told the delegates Thursday morning.
    "That's what you're doing!" a man shouted back.
    Cruz didn't stick around for Trump's coronation speech Thursday night, instead catching a mid-afternoon flight back to Washington.
    His future plans?
    My girls are here tonight and then I'm headed back to Texas."