The easiest way to summarize the ongoing skirmish over Republican presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz's immigration position is this: A politician very likely misled people. The question is when.
The Texas senator has been under fire for weeks from fellow candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who pointed out that Cruz, seemingly in earnest, indicated he was open to legal status for undocumented immigrants in 2013 and even introduced an amendment he claimed would help create it.
The question now, as reporters and strategists pore over transcripts and interviews two and a half years old, is whether Cruz meant it at the time. One school of thought, pushed by Cruz's campaign, is that he was offering a poison pill amendment all along. Another is that Cruz meant what he said then -- for political reasons or genuine ones -- but has since changed his mind, now holding what is a more palatable stance for the Republican base.
"I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization," Cruz said during Tuesday's GOP debate on CNN, after being challenged on the point by Rubio.
He doubled down on this in a Wednesday evening interview with Fox News' Bret Baier.
"What that amendment did is it revealed the hypocrisy of [New York Democratic Sen.] Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democrats and the establishment Republicans who are supporting them because they all voted against it," Cruz said.
How capable Cruz is in selling this as his true intent could very well determine his fate in the Republican presidential primary. But it won't be easy for the Texas Republican. Either he is misrepresenting his previous stance, or he is admitting that in the past, he repeatedly claimed to be trying to improve a bill he was actually trying to sink by proposing something he now says he never supported. It's not an easy sell.
"He's reinventing the past, and we're supposed to believe his lying words today rather than his lying words from back then?" said longtime immigration advocate Frank Sharry of America's Voice. "I believe what he said then, I believe what he's saying now, because it's all manufactured bullshit."
As an aide familiar with the 2013 negotiations put it, the idea of a senator offering an amendment that he himself opposes is "absolutely nuts."
"We would never send our boss in to go kill a bill with policy that he doesn't like," said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak about the private negotiations. "That's basically what he's saying he's doing: 'I hate this so much that I made an amendment out of it and offered it to kill the bill.' That makes no sense."
None of that is to say definitively that Cruz supported legal status then, or that he supported the Gang of Eight bill -- he was outspoken in his opposition to a path to citizenship. In fact, one top Senate Democratic aide said it is "110 percent" true that Cruz offered his amendment knowing that Democrats wouldn’t go for it and as a means of framing them as resolutely committed to a pathway to citizenship. "Which we were," the aide added.
Rubio's campaign can try to muddy the water by noting similarities in their statements. But when it comes to votes, the fact remains that Cruz opposed immigration reform, and Rubio helped to pass it.
Still, other than current-day recollections and some old press clippings, the Cruz campaign hasn't offered much proof that the senator never actually believed in his amendment, other than to say it was meant as a poison pill (something Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Senate's foremost immigration hawk, agreed with).
Asked for comment, the campaign pointed to Cruz's comments at a Judiciary hearing -- likely the May 21, 2013, one where he offered the amendment, although the spokeswoman did not specify.
At that time, Cruz was offering one of his amendments to the so-called "Gang of Eight" comprehensive immigration reform bill, which Rubio helped to draft. The bill would have allowed certain undocumented immigrants to gain eventual citizenship, but Cruz wanted to amend it so they would be blocked from naturalization. Still, he spoke sympathetically about the need for undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows. Cruz acknowledged that the committee would probably vote down his amendment, but he insisted that approving it would be beneficial for the legislation's chances of making it to the president's desk.
"I don't want immigration reform to fail," he said at a markup. "I want immigration reform to pass."
He made statements to that effect outside of the committee room as well. On May 28, 2013, the Washington Examiner's Byron York asked Cruz whether he bought "into this whole legalization idea."
"Legalization is the predicate of the Gang of Eight bill," Cruz said, according to a recording York posted of the conversation. "And in introducing amendments, what I endeavored to do was improve that bill so that it actually fixes the problem."
Supporters of immigration reform didn't buy the argument that his amendment would make the bill better. Immediately after Cruz finished his speech in support of the measure, then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he was concerned that it would "gut the bill" and destroy "a very careful balance by Republicans and Democrats who sponsored it."
Schumer, one of the bill's authors, then said that if Cruz's amendment was adopted, it wouldn't pass the Senate.
"If we don't have a path to citizenship, there is no reform, many of us feel. ... This is the heart of the bill," he said.
All this suggests that Democrats and other supporters of the bill at the time saw Cruz's amendment as nothing more than a gambit designed to produce a spectacle, not actual policy. In that vein, the amendment can be considered a poison pill because it went directly against the actual legislation. Ultimately, it didn't end up being a threat to its passage. The Judiciary Committee voted it down 13 to 5, with three Republicans voting against it: Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Gang of Eight members Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona. That all three of those Republicans were supportive (at the time, at least) of comprehensive immigration reform suggests that they, too, viewed Cruz's amendment as subterfuge.
The full bill later passed the Senate 68 to 32, with Cruz opposing and Rubio supporting it. Rubio has since backed away from the bill, saying that reform must be done piece by piece.
At this point, Rubio and Cruz have definitively different views on how to deal with undocumented immigrants. Rubio reaffirmed at Tuesday's debate that he is open to allowing them to eventually become citizens, albeit at the tail end of a lengthy process of buffing up enforcement and border security. Cruz has veered even further right into the mass-expulsion wing, and said more firmly that he does not support legal status for undocumented immigrants.
In summary: Did Cruz seem to be engaged in a genuine effort to improve the bill? Not really. Did he paint himself as a supporter of legal status for undocumented immigrants? Absolutely. Did he mean it? Probably not. But to admit that, he'd have to say that he was acting like one of the conniving, insidery politicians he often laments on the campaign trail.
Sam Stein contributed reporting.