CLEVELAND — Donald Trump kicked off his general election campaign Friday with a scathing attack — not on Hillary Clinton, but his Republican primary rival Ted Cruz, calling the Texas senator’s decision not to endorse him “dishonorable” and insisting he would not accept his support even if Cruz ever decided to endorse him.
In what were supposed to be simple remarks thanking staff and volunteers of the Republican National Convention, Trump veered wildly off course, looking past his likely Democratic rival to inflame his long-standing feud with Cruz, who has pointedly declined to endorse the New York real state mogul as the GOP nominee.
Chaos erupted at the convention on Wednesday when Cruz ended his convention speech without an endorsement, eliciting boos from many delegates. Trump initially described the non-endorsement in a tweet as “no big deal,” but speaking to supporters on Friday, Trump said the Texas senator deserved to be heckled and predicted he “may have ruined his political career.”
“He’ll come and endorse over the next little while. It’s because he has no choice,” Trump declared. “But I don’t want his endorsement. What difference does it make?”
Sarcastically, Trump added, “Ted, just stay home, relax, enjoy yourself.”
But in relitigating the ghosts of primaries past, Trump also revived memories of a bizarre episode that Cruz cited as one of the reasons for withholding his endorsement. As he did last spring, at the height of the bitter primary, the GOP nominee called attention to a National Enquirer story linking the senator’s father, Rafael, with Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
On Friday, Trump said he hadn’t suggested Rafael Cruz was directly involved in the JFK assassination plot but had merely pointed out a photo purporting to be of Harvey and the senator’s father. The photo appeared on the cover of the supermarket tabloid, which Trump described as a publication that often gets things right and “should be very respected.”
“I’ve always said, why didn’t the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize for [John] Edwards and O.J. Simpson and all of these things?” Trump mused.
But back to Cruz’s father. Trump insisted he barely knew the man. “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,” Trump said.
Trump allowed he “may have pointed out the picture” but said that he wasn’t responsible for the story. But, he added, “Ted never denied it was father.” (In fact, Cruz and his campaign repeatedly denied the story.)
The GOP nominee also denied being behind personal attacks on Cruz’s wife — though he retweeted a picture showing Heidi Cruz in an unflattering pose, side by side with one of his own wife, Melania, a former model. He added a grievance of his own, that a super-PAC the Texas senator was “friendly with” had sent risqué pictures of Melania to voters in Utah.
“GQ magazine [where the photo of Melania ran] is not exactly Penthouse,” Trump said, as Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, his extremely religious running mate, stood at his side. “I love the people of Utah. But that’s not where you want to necessarily send a risqué picture.”
Still, Trump insisted the party is coming together behind his candidacy, citing what he described as the party’s “amazing convention” this week as proof. “This was probably one of the most peaceful, one of the most beautiful, one of the most love-filled conventions in the history of conventions,” he declared.
Trump’s appearance here came the morning after his RNC speech accepting the nomination, which was notable for the absence of his usual off-the-cuff eruptions. On Friday, Trump was back to being Trump, delivering rambling remarks that at times seemed closer to a stand-up routine than a presidential campaign speech.
At one point, Trump randomly invited Dan Scavino, his social media director, to say a few words about the candidates’ Twitter and Facebook presence. Pence, his running mate, who had not yet spoken, stood on the platform as the candidate rambled on and on about Cruz and the events of the primary.
In rehashing his feud with Cruz, Trump barely mentioned Clinton, who is set to unveil her running mate soon, ahead of next week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The GOP nominee bragged about the television ratings of the RNC, though initial reports suggested they were lower than those of previous conventions.
Still, Trump, the former television star, predicted the DNC wouldn’t live up to the Republican convention, and offered a dismal preview of Clinton’s acceptance speech.
“I’m going to have a hard time watching her final speech,” Trump said. “No. 1, I know her too well. No. 2, boooring.”