Someone pointed out this morning that this tweet is still part of the presidential Twitter account two years later. Trump never deleted it, even after he and Cruz made nice.

That came up because Time magazine released its annual “100 Most Influential People” list today, consisting of 100 very short essays about famous people written by other famous people with whom they have some connection — professional, political, artistic, etc. The profile for the Parkland students, for instance, was written by Barack Obama, a salute from one gun-grabber to a group of others. You can imagine Time’s editors brainstorming over who to ask to write the essay honoring Trump and settling on … Ted Cruz. Former rival turned uneasy ally; conservative stalwart versus populist conqueror. It’s an interesting hook, but for one thing. The essays are supposed to be flattering to their subjects and for a hundred different reasons, some of them personal, Ted Cruz would naturally be disinclined to flatter Trump. Or so one might think.

But Time asked anyway. And to the world’s surprise, Cruz accepted:

President Trump is a flash-bang grenade thrown into Washington by the forgotten men and women of America. The fact that his first year as Commander in Chief disoriented and distressed members of the media and political establishment is not a bug but a feature.

The same cultural safe spaces that blinkered coastal elites to candidate Trump’s popularity have rendered them blind to President Trump’s achievements on behalf of ordinary Americans. While pundits obsessed over tweets, he worked with Congress to cut taxes for struggling families. While wealthy celebrities announced that they would flee the country, he fought to bring back jobs and industries to our shores. While talking heads predicted Armageddon, President Trump’s strong stand against North Korea put Kim Jong Un back on his heels.

President Trump is doing what he was elected to do: disrupt the status quo. That scares the heck out of those who have controlled Washington for decades, but for millions of Americans, their confusion is great fun to watch.

It’s strange but Cruz-y that everything there is couched in terms of pwning the elites, up to and including Trump’s actual policy achievements. He could have written a straightforward appreciation for what Trump has accomplished so far but even the value of a peace deal with North Korea seems to lie in making blow-dried idiots on cable news look foolish. Very populist, baby. Very on-brand.

But no one believes Cruz was eager to write this piece. Trump isn’t a buddy or a conservative comrade-in-arms like Mike Lee, he’s the guy who beat Cruz two years ago and insulted his wife, smeared his father, and repeatedly called him a liar in doing so. For all of his heavy breathing about throwing flash-bang grenades into Washington, the only conclusion Cruz could reach on a national stage at the GOP convention in 2016 was that people should vote their consciences. And so the question must be asked: Why did Cruz accept Time’s invitation to write the Trump essay?

Every move he makes politically is carefully calculated but I don’t understand the calculation in this case. He’s up for reelection this fall, sure, but (a) no one thinks an essay in Time will matter in his Senate bid and (b) even if it did matter, Trump’s numbers in Texas are soft enough that praising him might not have the effect Cruz might anticipate on his own popularity. If he wrote it to pander to Trump fans, surely there are more obvious ways to do that than to pen an essay for Time’s not-very-populist readership. One 10-minute segment on “Hannity” backpatting POTUS would have earned more goodwill from Trumpers than this will. Even the usual theory for Republican pols cuddling up to Trump in media, that they’re performing for an “audience of one,” doesn’t make sense. Cruz isn’t on bad terms with Trump and doesn’t need his active support this fall. He could have passed on the essay and lost nothing from the White House.

So he gained little by writing it, and meanwhile he’s getting destroyed by critics for kissing the ass of a guy who belittled and humiliated him repeatedly two years ago. Mika Brzezinski’s reply is representative of the heat he’s taking:

She forgot the time that Trump’s fans at the National Enquirer ran a highly dubious (and highly ironic in hindsight) expose during the primaries essentially accusing Cruz of being a serial philanderer. Thanks to Karen McDougal and Dino Sajudin, the extent to which the Enquirer has quietly colluded with Trump and Michael Cohen to help POTUS politically has been a hot topic in the newspapers lately. People seem to have forgotten the “affair” hit piece on Cruz that the Enquirer ran two years ago, but I guarantee you that Cruz didn’t. Yet here he is in Time fawning over The Human Flash-Bang Grenade.

My best guess as to Cruz’s angle here is that the strategizing for 2024 has already begun. Someone’s going to inherit the Trump base. Cruz, who had spent two years maneuvering to be the great populist hope in 2016 before Trump dove into the race, thinks he can be the great populist hope again. Getting his name linked to Trump’s in a high-profile spread like Time’s “Most Influential” list is something he can point back to in a few years to show Trumpers that he “got” Trump’s appeal from the start. That would also explain why his essay strains so mightily to frame everything, including detente with North Korea, in terms of sticking it to the media, Hollywood, and other populist enemies.

And yet even that doesn’t entirely add up. Benjy Sarlin is undoubtedly right about this:

It’s all too easy to imagine Cruz doing the “conservatism lost its way” shtick after Trump and yet that would be hugely dangerous to his bid to earn the support of Trump’s base, who’ll have choices in the field (starting with Mike Pence) who’ll know better than to speak any ill of the great man. All I can figure is that Cruz thinks he can pull off some sort of synthesis of Trumpism and conservatism, being careful to praise Trump personally — that’s the point of today’s essay — while gently calling for a turn towards more conservative policies circa 2024. Unless Cruz is planning to jettison conservatism entirely and embrace populism full-fold in the interest of winning the next open nomination, and I wouldn’t rule that out, it’s not too early to start laying the groundwork for a synthesis now. That begins with banking brownie points with Trump voters whenever an easy opportunity presents itself, no matter how humiliating.

Exit question: What does Cruz mean when he writes that Trump “fought to bring back jobs and industries to our shores”? Is a little protectionism creeping into the Cruz worldview?