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Trump just held one of his weirdest, Cruz-bashing, JFK conspiracy theorizing rallies ever

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Two days after Ted Cruz pointedly refused to endorse Donald Trump in primetime at the Republican National Convention, Trump addressed the matter at a campaign event in Cleveland, extending an olive branch to Cruz and saying he hoped to eventually earn the Texas senator’s support.

LOL, who am I kidding, no he didn’t. Instead Trump revived an attack, last seen the day he beat Cruz in Indiana and forced him out of the race, claiming that Cruz’s father fraternized with Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin:

TRUMP: His father. I don't know his father, I met him once. I think he's a lovely guy. I think he's a lovely guy. All I did was point out that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast. Now, Ted never denied that it was his father. Instead he said, "Donald Trump!" — I had nothing to do with it!

This was a magazine that frankly, in many respects, should be very respected. They got OJ, they got Edwards. If that was the New York Times, they would've gotten Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting. I've always said, "Why didn't the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize for Edwards, and OJ Simpson, and all of these things?"

But anyway, so they have a picture, an old picture, having breakfast with Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, I’m not saying anything. Here’s how the press takes that story. This had nothing to do with me. Except I might have pointed it out, but it had nothing to do with me, I have no control over anything. I might have pointed it out. But nobody ever denied — did anyone ever deny that it was his father? It’s a little hard to do, because it looks like him.

So here’s the story, they say, "Donald Trump and his conspiracy theories, he went out and said his father was with Lee Harvey Oswald, and he assassinated the president." What’d I do?

…I know nothing about his father, I know nothing about Lee Harvey Oswald. But there was a picture on the front page of the National Enquirer which does have credibility, and they’re not going to do pictures like that because they get sued for a lot of money if things are wrong. There’s a picture, and that’s the only thing I know.

This only scratches the surface of how bananas the whole rally was; Trump shortly thereafter declared, "If I have kids that like me that much, how bad can I be?" and toward the start of the event credited his success to his outsider status, saying, "Now if I don’t win, I’m going to blame Mike!" as Mike Pence stood behind him laughing. At another point, he attacks the Cruz campaign for distributing a scantily clad photo of his wife Melania, which seems to annoy Trump primarily because Cruz’s allies didn’t tell voters that the photos were from GQ.

You can watch the whole event on C-SPAN.

I looked for signs, but at no point in the video does Pence blink twice or otherwise signal that he was being held against his will, but his presence is by far the most bizarre part of the video. Mike Pence endorsed Ted Cruz for president. He clearly thinks he’s a respectable politician.

No, Ted Cruz’s dad didn’t kill JFK

For the record, the photo in question does not show Oswald and anybody "having breakfast." It shows them distributing pamphlets in New Orleans:

Lee Harvey Oswald in August 16, 1963 next to a mystery man who is not Ted Cruz's father Warren Commission via Snopes

There’s no evidence beyond slight physical resemblance that the man above is Cruz’s father. The man is referred to by JFK assassination experts as the "unidentified Cuban"; it's known that one of the pamphleteers was Charles Hall Steele Jr., a young man Oswald met at an unemployment office, but the shorter man hasn't been definitively identified.

Naturally, mysterious unnamed figures are catnip for conspiracists. Cruz Sr. is shorter than his son, at 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-10, about the average American male height or a little shorter, and was 24 at the time, so "short young Cuban" seems to fit. Better yet for the conspiracy folks is the fact that Cruz Sr. moved to New Orleans in the 1960s.

It's unclear exactly when Cruz Sr. moved there though. He was apparently there by 1967. Wayne Madsen, the conspiracy theorist most responsible for spreading the Cruz theory and a firm believer that Barack Obama is gay and the government invented swine flu, claims that Cruz moved in November 1962. But he's … not exactly a reliable source. The Ted Cruz campaign didn't reply to a request to comment on when exactly Cruz Sr. moved.

The sole evidence the Enquirer presents for the contention that Cruz Sr. is in the photo is the testimony of two self-styled experts: Carole Lieberman, a celebrity psychiatrist/expert witness who brags about her "star-studded practice in Beverly Hills," and Mitch Goldstone, CEO of ScanMyPhotos, a digitizing photo service. Lieberman said the photos "seem to match," and Goldstone commented, "There's more similarity than dissimilarity."

These are not exactly ringing endorsements, and they come from two people it's hard to fairly characterize as facial recognition experts. Given that, there's really no reason to think that the mysterious short Cuban is Cruz Sr. rather than one of thousands of other people. And even in the spectacularly unlikely event that it is him, that's not exactly damning.

The pamphleteers were hired for a few minutes' work, and weren't involved in Oswald's political activities at all, let alone his assassination planning. So there wouldn't have been anything particularly nefarious about Cruz Sr. picking up that odd job.

But here’s the part that should make Republicans scared, rather than merely ashamed: The fact that Trump is pulling this less than 12 hours after the end of a highly stage-managed, scripted convention acceptance speech is as clear an indication as we're going to get that he's still Trump, and he will always be Trump.

Even with the nomination locked and the GOP’s future riding on his discipline, he'll still make weird, off-the-cuff allegations based on conspiracy and conjecture, whether or not other party leaders or even his own running mate approves. He might have stayed sober for the convention, but there are over three months left in the campaign, and he's not going to stay on message for all of it, or most of it, or even 24 hours of it.

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