From spreading the MAGA mantra across America to the historic signings of the Abraham Accords, Donald Trump’s presidency had no shortage of standout moments — but politicos agree one of Trump’s breakout moments happened before he even took the oath of office.
Analysts say one of the first great moments for Trump happened where he shines most — on the debate stage — when talking about the city where he made his name.
Before the first Republican caucus occurred in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Trump, widely viewed as the top contenders in Iowa, squared off during a January GOP debate that set the tone for the rest of the primary.
“The Cruz-Trump debate moment was one of the more remarkable moments of the 2016 campaign and really showed Donald Trump’s acumen as a politician,” said GOP strategist Mark Pischea. “There are a lot of nuances to that moment that really went on to define the campaign.”
In an attempt to cast the liberal label on Trump, who had previously supported numerous Democrat politicians, Cruz, the seasoned politician, began spewing off some of Trump’s past policy positions as a private citizen, arguing that they showcased the stereotypical concept of “New York values.”
Instead of directly attacking Cruz, however, during his rebuttal, Trump made a calculated decision to focus on New York City.
He touted the city’s virtues, argued that conservatives have historically come out of New York City — “Conservatives do actually come out of Manhattan, including William F. Buckley and others, just so you understand” — and then, turning to 9/11, he delivered a gut punch that left Cruz speechless and forced to actually applaud his opponent.
“When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” Trump said.
“You had two 110-story buildings come crashing down, I saw them come down, thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction, I was down there. And I’ve never seen anything like it. And the people in New York fought, and fought, and fought, and we saw more death and even the smell of death, nobody understood it, and it was with us for months, the smell, the air.
“And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York, and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
Pischea said Trump took Cruz’s attack on Manhattan for being too liberal, and successfully “pivoted” into more comfortable territory, reminding both conservatives and liberals how New York came together, and America rose “from one of the most tragic events in our history to one the most uplifting stories in our history, which was the resurgence of New York.”
Rather than allowing Cruz’s “New York values” dig to become a “stigma,” GOP analyst Vlad Davidiuk said Trump “elevated it to become something worth celebrating and embracing, something the rest of America had done after the attacks.”
“It was a shrewd and powerful move that upended the effort to cast Trump as a New York ‘outsider’ and helped Trump relate to people across America,” he said.
In reminding the country how New Yorkers were able to rebuild post 9/11, Pischea said Trump gave Americans an “important glimpse into his psyche.”
“It showed a more human and empathic Donald Trump that maybe he isn’t all sharp edges,” he said.
Charles Denyer, a national security expert who was in Washington, D.C., when the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11, said Trump was able to deliver a message about the resiliency of New Yorkers with “smashing success.”
“Regardless of your political beliefs, all New Yorkers stand united in their city’s values and beliefs, something the country — and Ted Cruz — found out while trying to neutralize Trump’s growing popularity in 2016,” he said. “Diversity, respect for one another, the ability to rebound and rebuild against the greatest of odds, that’s the attitude of New Yorkers.”
While most New Yorkers “wouldn’t align themselves with Trump’s political platform,” Denyer pointed out, “they’ll stand behind this man 100% when it comes to embracing New York values.”
At that time, Cruz wasn’t the only Republican candidate in the field looking for ways to knock Trump out of the primary — and failing to find any.
“After his descent on the escalator to launch the race, Trump vaulted to the top of the field, and with challengers like Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio on his heels, the other candidates looked for ways to blunt Trump’s momentum,” Davidiuk said.
Pischea said Cruz “thought he had delivered the pitch that was going to strike Trump out.”
In re-watching the debate, he said Cruz has a “smug smile” on his face that viewers “can’t miss.”
Even as Trump responds, he said Cruz has the same look on his face, as if he is “oblivious” to the blow Trump was delivering or didn’t know how to react to the heavyweight counterpunch.
“He didn’t understand what had just happened – that Trump had just taken his pitch down the middle and put it into the left field bleachers,” Pischea said.
While the moment revealed a more approachable Trump, Pischea said it also “gave license to conservatives, who were supporting other candidates, room to move toward the Trump camp.”
“It allowed Trump to be viewed by Republican primary voters as a serious candidate,” he said.
Political commentator Deroy Murdock said he shared some of Cruz’s and other conservatives’ concerns that then-candidate Trump, a New Yorker who had donated to Democrat candidates, was “some sort of RINO (Republican in name only.)”
“I was thrilled to be proved dead wrong: President Trump could have been more tightfisted on spending and freer on trade, although his tariffs gave China the clobbering it needed,” he said. “Aside from that, his public policies were to the right of Ronald Reagan, both on big issues, like taxes and red tape, and on smaller ones, like battling Critical Race Theory, restoring due process on college campuses, and even promoting classical architecture in new federal buildings.”
He said the January 2016 debate helped set the tone for the way Trump would lead the country.
“Donald J. Trump was several orders of magnitude more conservative than many of us who voted for Ted Cruz in the primary elections ever could have fantasized,” Murdock said. “And for that, I am enormously grateful, as should be every conservative and Republican in America.”