Biden visits disaster-hit Texas as Cruz basks in warmth of Florida right-fest

David Smith in Washington
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

America’s political divide was on display on Friday as Joe Biden flew to Texas to comfort victims of a deadly winter storm while Ted Cruz, a senator from the beleaguered state, basked in Florida sunshine and joked about his recent holiday in Mexico.

The US president, who made empathy the core of his election campaign, and the first lady, Jill Biden, travelled to Houston for his first trip to a major disaster site since taking office on 20 January.

Related: ‘The base is solidly behind him’: Trumpism expected to thrive at CPAC

At least 40 people in Texas died as a result of severe winter weather that caused widespread power outages and frozen pipes that burst and flooded homes.

Biden’s first stop was an emergency operations centre for a briefing from Bob Fenton, acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), and state and local emergency management officials.

The president thanked workers for doing what he called “God’s work”. He also joined Jill Biden at a food bank.

Then, speaking at a Fema vaccination site, Biden said: “We’re not here today as Democrats or Republicans. We’re here today as Americans … When a crisis hits our states, like the one that hit Texas … it’s our fellow Americans are hurting and it’s our job to help everyone in need. Look out for one another. Leave nobody behind.”

Accordingly, Biden had earlier been accompanied by Governor Greg Abbott and Senator John Cornyn, both Republicans. But Cruz, the state’s other Republican senator, was instead enjoying a temperature of 27C in Orlando, Florida, and lapping up applause from the biggest annual gathering of grassroots conservatives, where former president Donald Trump is the headline speaker on Sunday.

Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Cruz made light of a controversy last week in which he flew to Cancún, Mexico, for a family holiday even as millions of Texans shivered in unheated homes. “Orlando is awesome,” Cruz said. “It’s not as nice as Cancún, but it’s nice!”

The crowd laughed at the quip. Cruz railed against “cancel culture”, coronavirus restrictions in restaurants, and condemned the Democrats broadly as the “shrill” and “angry” political “hard left”.

“Bernie [Sanders] is wearing mittens and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is telling us she was ‘murdered’.” Cruz mocked the Democratic congresswoman who said she feared for her life during the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January.

He went on: “And the media desperately, desperately, desperately wants to see a Republican civil war. Liberty is under assault and what are we going to do? I’ll tell you, we will fight.”

Cruz was cheered as he issued a warning to members of his own party who want to “erase the last four years” and banish Trump’s “Make America great again” movement. “Let me tell you this right now: Donald J Trump ain’t going anywhere,” he said.

Cruz and fellow Republican Josh Hawley were among the most prominent senators who voted to challenge the result of the 2020 election. An unrepentant Hawley earned rapturous applause as he recounted that episode.

“On January the 6th, I objected during the electoral college certification – maybe you heard about it,” the Missouri senator said. “I said we ought to have a debate about election integrity. I said it is the right of the people to be heard and my constituents in Missouri want to be heard on this issue.”

The senator continued: “I was called a traitor. I was called a seditionist.”

Hawley said the “radical left” had said he should he expelled from the Senate if he wouldn’t resign.

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here. I’m going to stand up for you because if we can’t have free and open debate in this country, we’re not going to have a country left,” he said.

Cruz and Hawley are facing an investigation from the Senate ethics committee over their conduct before the insurrection. They and others at CPAC have perpetuated the lie of a stolen election despite officials saying it was the most secure election in US history.

CPAC also heard from the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, who warned the Republican party against turning back the clock. “If there’s one thing the Republican party has been really good at over the last two decades, it’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said. “They caved to every special interest, they caved to corporate America, they caved and bowed to the radical left that hates their guts.”

The pugnacious Trump Jr reserved some of his barbs for Joe Biden, telling CPAC: “The first 30 days have been a disaster. The lies the media told you wouldn’t happen are all happening. But, hey, at least they have a diverse cabinet!”

Josh Hawley: &#x002018;I was called a traitor. I was called a seditionist.&#x002019;
Josh Hawley: ‘I was called a traitor. I was called a seditionist.’ Photograph: Joe Skipper/Reuters

On Sunday Trump, 74, is expected to dangle the possibility of running for president again in 2024, a prospect that complicates life for other hopefuls including former vice-president Mike Pence, who turned down an invitation to CPAC, and Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state, due to speak on Saturday.

There was vivid proof of Trump’s continued dominance of the Republican party when a golden statue of him was seen at CPAC. The kitsch monument is larger than life, with a golden head and Trump’s trademark suit jacket with white shirt and red tie. Bizarrely, the disgraced ex-commander-in-chief also appears to be holding a star wand and sporting Stars and Stripes shorts.

Attendees can buy $2 bumper stickers that say “Trump is my president”, “Biden is not my president”, “Trump 2024” and a picture of the 45th president with the question “Miss me yet?” One T-shirt has a picture of Trump with the slogan “Undefeated impeachment champ”; another shows Biden with an Adolf Hitler-style moustache and the words “Not my dictator”.

CPAC moved from its normal venue in Maryland to Florida because of coronavirus safety restrictions. Organisers made an appeal for attendees to wear face masks, only to receive boos and heckles. A TV reporter who went inside the venue estimated that only about 60% of people were wearing masks correctly.