Usually when Trump makes a wild accusation there’s some dubious peg on which to hang it, like when he claimed that Cruz was behind the ad in Utah from Liz Mair’s anti-Trump Super PAC targeting Melania Trump. That wasn’t true, as even Trump superfan Sean Hannity eventually admitted, but the ad obviously was designed to move votes to Cruz. Trump assumed culpability, wrongly, because Cruz benefited.
What’s the peg for this new claim, though? Or have we reached the point where Trump is gaslighting his fans without any tether to reality?
In an error-riddled statement released Tuesday night, the Donald Trump campaign claimed Ted Cruz was “coordinating with his own Super PACs (which is illegal), who totally control him.” That’s more than just campaign bluster; the charge of illegal coordination between a federal candidate and a super PAC is serious. The penalties for such illegal activity can include prison sentences.
But the Trump statement offered no evidence or verifiable claims of the Cruz campaign’s illegal coordination. Is there any evidence? Will the Trump campaign be filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission? Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks has not yet responded to an email asking these questions.
Actually, says WaPo, there is a peg, and it’s as dubious as ever — not that the media, which reflexively amplifies everything Trump says, would tell you that:
But instead of contextualizing Trump’s latest wild claim as being part of a pattern, NBC News, Fox News, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and others simply published it uncritically without noting the lack of support for the billionaire’s assertion. The Associated Press included an unfiltered version of the statement in its stream of primary-night updates…
The Houston Chronicle, in Cruz’s home state, posited that “Trump’s accusation of illegal coordination was a reference to Cruz’s participation in campaign events organized by Keep the Promise, a putatively independent Super PAC that supports Cruz.”
Indeed, Cruz made appearances at three Wisconsin events organized by Keep the Promise in the days before primary voting. But even the Chronicle story did not make clear that such appearances are permitted by the Federal Election Commission. They are not considered coordination.
This isn’t the first time Trump has strained to delegitimize a loss at Cruz’s hands. As Michael Warren notes in the first piece quoted above, in Iowa he accused Cruz of winning via “fraud” when a Cruz operative sent a message to caucusgoers wrongly claiming that Ben Carson was dropping out. Iowa and Wisconsin have something in common besides their midwestern pedigree: They’re the only two major elections this year that Trump has lost on nights when no other states were voting. He did lose two minor primaries, Puerto Rico and D.C., held on dates when no other elections were being conducted, but both of those came just a few days after Trump notched big wins in other states. Every other Trump defeat this year has come on a night when multiple states voted and added wins to his column to offset the losses. He’s smearing Cruz here, I assume, for the simple reason that the usual spin — sure, I lost X tonight but that’s an aberration because I won Y and Z! — isn’t available to him. It may be a simple matter of this guy being so psychologically fragile when it comes to not being perceived as a consummate winner that he’s forced to reach, like a child, for theories of foul play to comfort him. Cruz out-organizing him in Louisiana, North Dakota, and Colorado to woo delegates is another textbook example; that’s just good gamesmanship according to longstanding rules, but to Trump it’s “unfair” and de facto cheating. Be happy, I guess, that he hasn’t descended yet into outright accusations of vote-rigging, but also don’t put it past him. Some of his fans on Twitter last night, remembering this garbage poll from ARG, concluded that Cruz’s margin of victory must be fraudulent since it was so wildly out of sync with ARG’s numbers (yet very much in line with the numbers from Marquette and Fox Business).
I wonder, in fact, who the target audience for the “Cruz cheated!” smear is. Some would say it’s the media and undecided voters, to convince them that “Lyin’ Ted” isn’t worthy of their support, but I think it’s actually aimed at Trump’s core supporters. He’s running as the Green Lantern; faith in his ability to overcome all opponents, foreign and domestic, takes a hit every time he loses an election straight up. More than that, he wants his fans to see themselves as part of an irresistible movement, a new “silent majority” that isn’t even a majority in its own party. When something like Wisconsin happens, he’s left scrambling to explain how his superpowers and his legions of fans were unable to prevent a beating from a guy in Ted Cruz whom most people outside the conservative base dislike. The only available explanation is cheating. Only by delegitimizing Cruz can defeat be rationalized. All of this is but a small test run of his spin at the convention.