A day after accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump pivoted back to the GOP primaries on Friday, choosing to re-litigate a pair of months-old battles with rival Ted Cruz.
In what should have been a feel-good victory lap the morning after his thundering acceptance speech, Trump instead defended his decision to retweet an unflattering photo of Cruz's wife, Heidi, and returned to wondering about possible links between Cruz's father and President John F. Kennedy's assassin.
He also declared that, two days after Cruz was loudly booed at the Republican National Convention for not endorsing the new nominee, he would never accept the Texas senator's backing.
"He'll come and endorse, it's because he has no choice. But I don't want his endorsement," Trump said. "Ted, stay home. Relax. Enjoy yourself."
The ugly and highly personal feud between the top two finishers in the Republican primaries, dormant since Cruz ended his campaign in early May, reignited in dramatic fashion Wednesday at a convention meant to heal the bruised party.
The Texas senator was given a speaking slot, though he had indicated he wasn't going to offer an endorsement. He drew a standing ovation when he first emerged and was cheered loudly for most of his speech. But as it drew to a close, and it became apparent that Cruz would not offer the nominee a full-throated endorsement or urge his hundreds of delegates to vote for Trump come November, boos echoed across the arena.
Trump then made a surprise appearance in his private box, glaring at the stage as Cruz departed.
The Republican nominee made no mention of his former rival as he read his 75-minute speech from the teleprompters Thursday night, but switched gears the following morning. The invite-only event, billed as a thank you reception for supporters and staff at Trump's Cleveland hotel at first looked like it would simply consist of Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, making perfunctory remarks saluting the convention and pledging to win in November.
But then Trump bore in on Cruz, calling his non-endorsement "dishonorable" before revisiting the hubbub over the celebrity businessman March's retweet of a post that juxtaposed an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz with a glamour shot of Trump's wife Melania, a former model. Cruz criticized Trump for involving his wife; Trump's rebuttal at the time was to accuse a Super PAC affiliated with Cruz of sending a risque photo of Melania Trump to Utah voters.
And then, suddenly, he returned to it Friday.
"I didn't start anything with the wife," Trump said, eliciting a loud gasp from one reporter at the back of the hotel ballroom. "Then when I saw somebody tweeted a picture of Melania and a picture of Heidi, who I think, by the way, is a very nice woman and a very beautiful woman."
"I think (she's) the best thing he's got going and his kids if you want to know the truth." he continued during the nearly 15-minute ramble about Cruz.
Trump then turned to justifying how, on the eve of the Indiana primary that proved to be Cruz's last stand, he touted a story in the National Enquirer tabloid that printed a photo that purported to show Cruz's father, Rafael, with Lee Harvey Oswald.
"All I did was point out the fact that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast," the GOP nominee said. "Did anybody ever deny that was the father? They're not saying, 'Oh that wasn't really my father.' It was a little hard to do. It looked like him."
Cruz, in May, had denied that his father was in the photo. His spokeswoman Catherine Frazier declined comment on Trump's remarks Friday.
Follow Jonathan Lemire on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/JonLemire