CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Carolina’s notoriously nasty Republican presidential primary took a decidedly ugly turn Wednesday as Ted Cruz tore into rival Donald Trump for threatening to sue him over a political ad that features the GOP frontrunner saying he supports abortion rights.
In a highly dramatic news conference in Seneca, S.C., Cruz said his campaign had received a cease and desist letter from Trump’s attorneys ordering it to take down a television ad featuring a 1999 interview with the real estate mogul from NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The spot features Trump, who was then considering a run for president as a Reform Party candidate, describing himself as “very pro-choice.”
Visibly irritated, Cruz defended the ad to reporters on Wednesday, insisting he was merely using Trump’s own words to present the facts to voters. And Cruz, a Harvard-trained attorney who argued before the Supreme Court as Texas solicitor general, called out Trump on what he clearly thinks is a political bluff just days before Saturday’s pivotal primary here.
Sen. Ted Cruz arrives at his press conference in Seneca, S.C. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
“I have to say to Mr. Trump, you have been threatening frivolous lawsuits for your entire adult life,” Cruz declared. “If you want to file a lawsuit challenging this ad, claiming defamation, file the lawsuit.”
Cruz, who peppered his remarks with dramatic pauses as if he were already in the courtroom, suggested Trump’s lawsuit was a joke that would have no legal standing because Cruz was merely using footage of the candidate’s own words. With disdain in his voice, Cruz repeatedly called on Trump to deliver on his legal threat, telling reporters that he might even skip hiring a lawyer and depose the GOP frontrunner himself.
“Whether in a deposition or in a court of law, getting Donald Trump under oath, under penalty of perjury, answering these questions… It didn’t work very well for Bill Clinton,” Cruz said. “Donald Trump does not want to be under oath answering questions about his own record.”
Donald Trump speaks to voters in Bluffton, S.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Trump has repeatedly bashed the Cruz ad in recent days, saying he has evolved on the issues and is now against abortion rights. He’s used the spot — as well as the Cruz campaign’s involvement in spreading rumors before the Iowa caucuses that rival Ben Carson was dropping out of the race — to trash the Texas senator as “the most dishonest man I’ve ever met in politics.”
“He is a liar and these ads and statements made by Cruz are clearly desperate moves by a guy who is tanking in the polls — watching his campaign go up in flames finally explains Cruz’s logo,” Trump said in a statement responding to Cruz’s news conference.
Trump wasn’t the only candidate to receive Cruz’s venom at the news conference. The Texas senator also trashed Marco Rubio for accusing him of employing dirty campaign tricks to undermine his campaign here — including a fake Facebook page that surfaced Tuesday suggesting Rep. Trey Gowdy had switched his support from Rubio to Cruz. The Texas senator’s campaign has denied any involvement in the page.
Earlier Wednesday, Rubio trashed Cruz for “disturbing” behavior on the campaign trail, including a new Cruz ad that links Rubio’s views on immigration reform to President Obama.
“I’ve been saying for a while now that Ted unfortunately has proved that he is willing to say or (do) anything to get elected,” Rubio told reporters. “What we’ve seen in the last couple weeks is disturbing. … It’s been apparent especially in the last month.”
In response, Cruz defended the ad — saying that Rubio, like Trump, was trying to distract from his record by personally attacking him. “Marco Rubio is behaving like Donald Trump with a smile,” the Texas senator declared.
Ted Cruz speaks to voters at Seneca Family Restaurant in Seneca, S.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The back and forth between Trump, Rubio and Cruz comes as a new CNN poll of likely GOP voters finds the businessman and former reality television star with a massive lead heading into Saturday’s primary. According to the poll, Trump is at 38 percent support, followed by Cruz at 22 percent, Rubio at 14 percent and Jeb Bush at 10 percent.
But the danger for Cruz lies beyond South Carolina if the attacks on his character stick. Though Cruz has publicly apologized to Carson for his campaign’s role in suggesting to Iowa caucus-goers that the retired neurosurgeon was out of the race, many of Carson’s supporters, especially evangelicals in key voting states, remain publicly irked at what they view as a dishonest move by the Texas senator’s campaign.
In repeatedly reminding voters here in South Carolina of the episode, Trump and Rubio are hoping to make the narrative stick that Cruz will lie and do anything to win heading into Super Tuesday states and beyond.
On Wednesday, Cruz sought to craft a narrative of his own: that he was the embattled conservative under attack from all sides for his willingness to stand up to the establishment. But he stepped on his message a few times, getting into the minutia of push polls and other technical politicking. At the same time, he seemed to back off his apology to Carson, arguing that what his staff had done to his GOP rival in Iowa was “not remotely unethical” and that Rubio’s staff had spread rumors too.
When a reporter asked if Cruz was violating his own pledge not to attack his rival candidates, the Texas senator demurred.
“I am responding with simple facts.”