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The Donald Trump/Ted Cruz feud, explained

Trump and Cruz in happier times, at a September 2015 rally against Obama's Iran deal.
Trump and Cruz in happier times, at a September 2015 rally against Obama's Iran deal.
Al Drago / CQ Roll Call Group / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Grab some popcorn, Republican elites. The two presidential candidates you loathe most are now at each other's throats.

Until the past week, the relationship between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz was most notable for how downright friendly it was. While every other candidate under the sun was piling on Trump, Cruz repeatedly refused to join in — deliberately never saying a bad word about the billionaire mogul. In return, an appreciative Trump refrained from attacking Cruz.

But with Cruz now rising to second place in national GOP primary polls and first in Iowa — and thus becoming the main threat to Trump's dominance — this amity couldn't last.

And after the New York Times published some leaked, somewhat disparaging comments Cruz made about Trump in private, the billionaire chose to fire back with both barrels. In several campaign appearances and interviews since Friday, Trump has finally begun insulting and belittling Cruz in his imitable fashion — calling him "a little bit of a maniac," deeming him a tool of Big Oil, and even seeming to question the authenticity of Cruz's faith.

It's unclear whether Trump's attempt to stave off Cruz's rise will be successful. But it is clear that Trump now sees Cruz as his most dangerous remaining rival — and that the Republican establishment, which hates them both, is thrilled to see them at war.

Trump and Cruz had a mutual non-aggression pact for months

Ted Cruz

Cruz has praised Trump for months. (David A. Grogan/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Since entering the GOP race, Donald Trump has adhered — or pretended to adhere — to one main rule: If you don't attack him, he won't attack you. But if you do attack him, he'll go after you so hard you'll wish you'd never been born. Trump has viciously mocked rivals such as Jeb Bush and Ben Carson with memorable putdowns that have been reported breathlessly by the media. And, coincidentally or not, the candidates Trump has attacked have tended to fall in the polls.

So for months, Ted Cruz has avoided criticizing Trump, and has indeed fulsomely praised him in public. "I have been glad to praise Donald Trump for speaking out boldly and brashly and for focusing on illegal immigration," Cruz said in August. And when Cruz was asked about Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States early last week, he said: "In the media, there has been no shortage of criticism for Donald Trump, and I do not believe the world needs my voice added to that chorus of critics."

This is partly driven by Cruz's desire to avoid incurring Trump's wrath. But it's also partly driven by Cruz's long-held belief that Trump's campaign will eventually collapse — and that when it does, Cruz wants to be positioned to pick up his supporters. Here's how he explained it to donors recently (in a conversation secretly recorded and leaked to the New York Times):

My approach, much to the frustration of the media, has been to bear hug both of them [Trump and Carson] and smother them with love... I believe gravity will bring both of those campaigns down and I believe the lion's share of their supporters will come to us.

But unfortunately for Cruz, this very conversation may have ruined his plans.

Trump has decided to interpret Cruz's private comments as an attack — and to respond in kind

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

(Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

If there's one thing we know about Donald Trump, it's that he is obsessed with polls. And the polls coming out of Iowa lately have clearly troubled him. They show that Trump's old rival Ben Carson has collapsed — but that Cruz is on the rise, and is probably in first place at this point.

So Trump has likely been looking for a pretext to start attacking Cruz — a pretext Cruz kept stubbornly refusing to give him, in public. Two weeks ago, Trump foreshadowed that this might be coming. "Even Cruz, I think he’s going to have to hit me," he said at a rally. "It’s going to be a sad day, but we will hit back — I promise."

And last week, he got just the pretext he needed, when that aforementioned conversation between Cruz and donors in New York City was leaked to the New York Times. Because elsewhere in the conversation, Cruz said the following (emphasis added):

I like and respect both Donald and Ben. I do not believe either one of them is going to be our nominee. I don't believe either one of them is going to be our president. I think both of them, their campaigns have a natural arc. And with both of them I think gravity is pulling them down. We've seen that, Carson is further in that descent. But I think in both instances — in particular, you look at Paris, you look at San Bernardino, it's given a seriousness to this race. That people are looking for, who is prepared to be a commander-in-chief? Who understands the threats we face? Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button? That's a question of strength but it's also a question of judgment. And I think that is a question that's a challenging question to both of them.

As far as private conversations about your rivals go, this was actually phrased relatively nicely. Of course Cruz would privately make the case that he's better qualified to be president than Trump — why else would he be running? And rather than insulting Trump personally, he emphasized that he liked and respected him. Yet he did also suggest voters wouldn't be comfortable with Trump having his "finger on the button," or with Trump's "judgment."

So someone decided to leak Cruz's comments to the New York Times' Maggie Haberman and Matt Flegenheimer. And when Cruz tried to downplay the story and call it inaccurate, the Times published the full audio of what Cruz said. Almost certainly, the leaker is someone who was deliberately trying to provoke a fight between Trump and Cruz.

And that person got his or her wish. The morning after the story broke, Trump knew he had the pretext he needed to finally attack Cruz, and tweeted the following:

Trump quickly began insulting and attacking Cruz

Trump at a Des Moines, Iowa rally on Friday (Joe Posner / Vox)

As of midday Friday, Cruz still seemed to be hoping to forestall Trump's attack. He tweeted that the "Establishment" was trying to provoke a fight between him and Trump (which is probably true), and obsequiously praised Trump again:

But Trump chose not to let things slide. In a Friday campaign rally and in interviews over the weekend, he didn't hold back — he tested out at least seven different attack lines against Cruz, some of which seemed tailored for Iowa, and some of which were more general.

1) Cruz hates ethanol (because he's been bought by Big Oil)

"With ethanol [Cruz has] gotta come a long way," Trump said Friday, going for the jugular at a rally in corn-heavy Iowa Friday. "He’s right now for the oil. But I understand if oil pays him a lot of money, he’s gotta be for oil. Right?"

2) Hey, is Cruz really an evangelical? He is Cuban...

"I do like Ted Cruz, but not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba," Trump said at that same rally in evangelical-heavy Iowa, seemingly trying to question his rival's very Christianity. "But I like him nonetheless."

3) Cruz has a bad temperament, can't get along with people, and was a "maniac" in the Senate

"I don't think he's qualified to be president," Trump said on Fox News Sunday. "Look at the way he's dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there like a — you know, frankly like a little bit of a maniac. You're never going to get things done that way."

4) Cruz just copies everything Trump says

"Everything I say, he agrees with me. No matter what I say," Trump said of Cruz at the Des Moines rally. This seems aimed at defining Trump as the genuine article and Cruz as an opportunistic copycat.

5) Cruz talked about Trump behind his back

6) Cruz is a warmonger

"I was against going into Iraq," Trump pointed out to CNN, in an attempt to rebut Cruz's comment that he lacked the judgment to be commander in chief. "That's good judgment. I was for bombing [ISIS's] oil long before anyone else was talking about it. That's good judgment. I have great judgment. I would say I have far better judgment than Ted."

7) Cruz's credentials on immigration are questionable

Since Cruz and Trump have adopted a similarly hard line on unauthorized immigration, it seems inevitable that Trump would seek to differentiate himself on the issue. And his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has previewed that an attack on Cruz's support for more legal immigration may be coming (via the Texas Tribune's Patrick Svitek):

The GOP establishment is thrilled to see Trump and Cruz at war — but should they be?

It seems Cruz is still hoping to avoid fighting with Trump but doesn't want to look weak by totally ignoring the attacks. So he tweeted this bizarre response to Trump dubbing him "a little bit of a maniac" in the Senate — a video of the song "Maniac" from the movie Flashdance:

This probably won't work. Cruz's emergence in Iowa, and rise to second place nationally, is now the biggest immediate threat Trump faces. So he will keep pummeling Cruz in the month and the half remaining before the Iowa caucuses, and Cruz will eventually have to decide whether to hit back.

So far, the emergence of Trump and Cruz as the top two candidates in polls has been a bonafide disaster for the GOP establishment, since both are utterly loathed by elites (and, unlike Ben Carson, Cruz may have the campaign organization and professional abilities to actually win).

But this new feud presents one sliver of hope for those beleaguered elites. If Trump and Cruz spend their time and resources attacking each other, some other candidate could stealthily avoid the fray and sneak into the lead. This is what some Democrats believed happened in their 2004 primary — as poll leaders Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt savaged each other with negative attacks, John Kerry emerged as an alternative.

Should the establishment really be hoping for this, though? Matt Yglesias has made the case that party elites' hatred for Cruz is mainly personal and tactical. Though his electability is seriously questionable, Cruz doesn't really disagree with the GOP on major policy issues, and "there is serious reason to believe that he could do a better job than anyone else in the field of stopping Trump."

So a fight between Trump and Cruz could clear the way for another candidate like Marco Rubio. But if Cruz is indeed the party's best chance to stop Trump, elites may come to regret their willingness to stoke this feud.

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