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"I have had many, many disagreements with Donald Trump," Cruz said

Cruz would not say when asked whether Trump is "fit" to be president

Austin, Texas CNN  — 

Ted Cruz offered his first extensive defense of his endorsement of Donald Trump here Saturday, declining to disavow his searing criticisms of Trump’s candidacy but arguing he made the best decision possible.

Twenty-four hours after surprisingly abandoning his months-long opposition to his former Republican primary foe, Cruz uneasily stumped for Trump’s White House bid, portraying him as the best and only option to stop Hillary Clinton. But he passed on chances to say that Trump was “fit” to be president and to take back some of his most notable attacks delivered just a few months ago.

“I have had many, many disagreements with Donald Trump. And some of them you’ve catalogued,” Cruz said after being read several of the insults by interviewer Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune. “I don’t think it’s productive to criticize the Republican nominee today.”

Cruz was immediately confronted with the challenges of serving as a high-profile endorser of the Republican nominee.

Introduced here at an ideas festival as the “Republican senator of Texas and a Donald Trump supporter,” Cruz recounted the key moments in Trump’s courtship of his coveted endorsement.

Most crucial was an assurance from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence that Trump’s potential Supreme Court justice nominations would be restricted to the list of 21 justices circulated by his campaign – rather than just treating that roster as a starting point.

Hours before the endorsement became official, Trump added Sen. Mike Lee, Cruz’s closest friend in the Senator, to the list.

Yet Cruz would not say when asked whether Trump is “fit” to be president. Cruz merely offered that he tried to stop him from becoming the Republican nominee and that the election is a binary choice.

“Do you consider Donald Trump to be fit to be president?” Smith asked at one point.

“I think we have one of two choices,” Cruz said slowly, declining to answer when asked again.

Cruz was asked repeatedly by voters and by Smith, who asked him to defend Trump’s controversial positions, whether it is his call to ban some Muslim immigrants or his seeming support for national stop-and-frisk policy or his praise for Vladimir Putin.

But Cruz parried that a Clinton presidency would be far more harrowing, and told those gathered that he would not spend the next two months as a Trump surrogate backing his every position. On issue after issue, Cruz encouraged Texans to “vote their conscience” – as he termed it when he memorably snubbed Trump at the Republican National Convention earlier this summer.

Yet Cruz expressed real concern about the political ramifications of his decision, characterizing it as “agonizing” and aware that he was certain to upset a large swath of his supporters. Several prominent conservative leaders — including some on Cruz’s team — counseled him not to issue an endorsement, yet he faced extraordinary political pressure from some other aides, donors and Trump allies to toe the party line.

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Cruz recalled meeting Republicans across the state who sobbed as they asked him to get behind the nominee. And he shared that he has been reading the online comments on Friday’s Facebook announcement closely.

“There was no option that wouldn’t result with people who are deeply, deeply unhappy,” Cruz said. No matter the decision, “the criticism was going to be: It’s political or self-serving.”

Cruz said he did not seriously consider voting for a third-party candidate, leaving the top of the ticket blank or writing in a name for president, saying he could not make a “coherent, credible and reasonable” argument for any of those options.

At times jeered by industry leaders and political activists in this liberal enclave, Cruz received some of his most intense reaction when he disclosed that Trump had not apologized to his family. Trump during the campaign took high-profile, repeated swipes at Cruz’s wife and father – and even dredged them up during the general election campaign after Cruz had dropped out.

“My faith teaches me to forgive, with or without an apology,” Cruz said, telling the crowd that his family decided to not hold a grudge against Trump.

“Both Heidi and my dad — they are strong, independent people,” he said.