(CNN)On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz told the truth about what happened at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, calling it "a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol, where we saw the men and women of law enforcement demonstrate incredible courage."
Within 24 hours -- so on the actual anniversary of the January riot -- the Texas Republican was furiously backpedaling in the face of criticism from the Trump wing of the GOP base.
Witness this back and forth between Cruz and Fox demagogue host Tucker Carlson on the latter's show on Thursday:
Carlson: "You called this a 'terror attack' when by no definition was it a terror attack. That's a lie. You told that lie on purpose, and I'm wondering why you did."
Cruz: "Well, Tucker, thank you for having me on. ... The way I phrased things yesterday, it was sloppy, and it was, frankly, dumb."
Carlson: "I don't buy that. Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don't buy that. ... You take words as seriously as any man who's ever served in the Senate. ... I do not believe that you used that accidentally. I just don't."
It went on like that for a while but you get the gist: Cruz was groveling at Carlson's feet in hopes of getting on the right side of the Trumpers.
Let's take a step back here and remember what happened on January 6, 2021.
A large group of people -- many of whom had come to Washington to attend the "Stop the Steal" gathering -- stormed the US Capitol. To do so, they broke through a variety of barricades, brutalized multiple police officers, vandalized the Capitol building and generally caused chaos. They did so in hopes of stopping the formal counting of the Electoral College votes because they believed (contra facts) that Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
People died that day and in the weeks that followed. Hundreds of police officers were wounded. More than 700 people have been charged for their role in the insurrection.
Now, consider the definition of terrorism, according to the Code of Federal Regulations: "The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
Which, well, sounds exactly what happened on January 6, right?
So, Cruz calling it a "violent terrorist" attack was neither "sloppy" nor "dumb." It was accurate. And as CNN's Daniel Dale noted, Cruz said it multiple times in official statements in 2021.
Why would Cruz sprint away from that position in his interview with Carlson? Because Cruz understands that if he wants to run for president again in 2024 (or 2028), he can't be seen as adversarial to the Trump base. (Cruz already poked that bear once when he refused to endorse Trump from the stage at the 2016 Republican convention.)
And Cruz also knows that Carlson is hugely powerful and influential among that group. Carlson, put simply, has more sway over the Trump base than Cruz, a sitting US Senator, does. Way more.
Cruz's attempt to scamper back under the Trump tent is rightly understood as a recognition by the senator that he is beholden to the likes of Carlson and Trump, that there is no path to a Republican presidential nomination that doesn't include being on Carlson's good side.
While Cruz's backpedal is probably a political necessity, it's both hugely embarrassing and deeply revealing about who has the power within the Republican party.