There is no evidence that Ted Cruz attacked Donald Trump's wife.
In a normal election year, this statement would be relatively non-controversial. After all, it's true. Yes, there was an ad that ran in Utah, suggesting that because she had posed for provocative modeling photos, she was somehow unfit to be First Lady. But, no, that ad was not from the Cruz campaign. It was from the Make America Awesome PAC, a political action committee that raises and spends money without input from any candidate, including Cruz.
How do I know that? Well, I know that if the PAC were to coordinate with Cruz -- say, by running an ad at his behest -- it would be a federal crime. I know a presidential candidate purposefully violating federal law is almost certainly not worth the risk. I know that Cruz was going to win Utah anyway, by a wide margin, so violating federal law to win with 70 percent of the vote versus 65 percent is a particularly dumb idea. But this is not how Donald Trump tells it.
"From what I hear," he told ABC's Jonathan Karl on "This Week" on Sunday, "[Cruz] and his campaign went out and bought the cover shoot." (The image was from a spread in GQ magazine.) "[F]rom what I hear," he continued, "somebody bought the rights to it and he was the one or his campaign bought the rights and they gave it to the super PAC."
This is actually a more detailed critique than Trump offered when he first broached the subject, which he did on Twitter last week. Then, it was "Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad." Now, at least, Trump suggests that the ad wasn't Cruz's.
But what he suggested to Karl is still a crime. This is why campaigns now record lengthy video segments and put them out in public, so that PACs can legally use B-roll footage of candidates in their ads without coordinating with the campaigns. Cruz's team can't buy anything and give it to the PAC in private, even if it did want to violate federal law to toss a few extra percentage-point pebbles into its Utah landslide. Which -- again! -- there's no evidence that it did.
We expect this from Trump by now. Trump says things, and they are wrong, and people note that they are wrong, and Trump and his supporters don't care. That's the pattern.
Trump is aided in this case by his having tilled the soil of suggesting that Cruz is unethical or a cheater by accusing the Texas senator of stealing votes in Iowa and lying ("Lyin' Ted") -- accusations with little basis in reality.
What's frustrating about this particular scenario, though, is that it's not just Trump who's conflating Cruz with the super PAC that ran the ad. (A super PAC, mind you, that can be taken at face value when it says that it's priority is less Ted Cruz being the nominee than Donald Trump not being the nominee.) It's a common conflation among television pundits, too.
BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski spotted an interview on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor."
"I have to mention that Sen. Ted Cruz is a raving hypocrite," Geraldo Rivera said, "for not mentioning that it was his super PAC that ran the Melania nude picture on the eve of the Utah, Mormon, heavy Utah caucuses, so Cruz starts it."
Rivera is corrected. His response? "I think there is coordination, even if it is just whispers and nods." Viewers are left with the impression that this is just a point of disagreement between Rivera and the host, not that Rivera is making a serious charge without evidence.
And he's not alone. On Friday night on CNN, Omarosa Manigault made a similar claim -- repeatedly. In a debate with Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, Manigault claimed that Cruz had started the attacks on wives.
"You and others all across Twitter," Conway said, "are saying that Ted Cruz and his camp has posted pictures and insulted Melania Trump. I was on the show --"
"He has," Manigault said.
"He has not!" Conway replied.
"He has," Manigault replied.
There's the rebuttal. Either out of ignorance or out of denial, Manigault (and others) are accusing Cruz of illegally coordinating with a PAC because it just sort of seems like something a politician might do. Whispers and nods. Of course this happens. That's how it works!
It isn't. Most candidates abide by both the written and the unspoken rules of political campaigns. By implying without presenting any evidence that Cruz did the former, Trump and his allies are doing the latter.
Just another day in 2016.
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• 03/23/16: The Brussels attacks and the increasing isolationism of Donald Trump
• 03/21/16: Will the GOP really keep trying to Stop Trump for four more months? It'll be tough
• 03/10/16: The unravelling of a political messiah
• 03/08/16: Hillary's bogus electability argument
• 03/07/16: Donald Trump has not brought 'millions and millions' of people to the Republican Party
• 03/02/16: Trump cites his $100,000-a-year golf resort as proof of his efforts on equality
• 02/23/16: Ted Cruz isn't running a dirty campaign, but that perception just cost a staffer his job
• 02/22/16: How Donald Trump won South Carolina
• 02/19/16: Trump says he'll win independents and New York state, but the numbers don't
• 02/19/16: Does Trump have a ground game? We probably still won't know after South Carolina
• 02/17/16: The Bush family reinvented itself to dominate politics --- which is now Jeb's problem
• 01/27/16: The dead people of America really don't want Hillary Clinton to be president
• 01/21/16: Sarah Palin's son, and the link between combat duty and veteran violence
• 01/18/16: The dark undercurrent for Hillary Clinton in Sunday's Dem debate
• 11/23/15: Just so you know: The government already has a list of Muslims in the U.S.