WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters Thursday his decision to go on a family vacation to Cancún, Mexico, as Texans suffer without heat, water and power because of a historic winter storm was "a mistake" that he now regrets.
"It was obviously a mistake, and in hindsight I wouldn't have done it," Cruz said outside his home after having returned to Houston, where he was greeted by protesters chanting, "Resign."
"I understand why people are upset," Cruz said. He said that he was trying to make his daughters happy by going with them on the trip but that "leaving when so many Texans were hurting didn't feel right, and so I changed my return flight and flew back on the first available flight."
News of Cruz's trip emerged Wednesday night as pictures of him and his family as they waited at an airport gate with luggage and boarded a plane began circulating on social media.
After Cruz's Senate office did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday, Cruz released a statement explaining his decision to leave the state and said he was returning home Thursday afternoon. He said that it has be an "infuriating week for Texans" and that his family had "lost heat and power, too."
"With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends," the statement said. "Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon. My staff and I are in constant communication with state and local leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas.
"We want our power back, our water on, and our homes warm. My team and I will continue using all our resources to keep Texans informed and safe," he added.
Cruz gave an account similar to his statement when NBC News encountered him at the airport in Cancún on Thursday before his return flight, suggesting that he had just gone to drop his daughters off.
"We had no heat and no power, and yesterday my daughters asked if they could take a trip with some friends, and Heidi and I agreed, so I flew down with them last night and dropped them off here, and now I'm headed back to Texas and back continuing to work to get the power back on," Cruz said.
A source with knowledge of the situation said that Cruz was initially booked to return home Saturday and that he booked his return ticket at 6 a.m. Thursday.
After he returned home, Cruz acknowledged that he had planned to stay through the weekend, but he said he had second thoughts after he got on the plane.
"I began really second-guessing that decision and saying, look, I know why we're doing this, but I've also got responsibilities, and it had been my intention to work remotely, to be on the phone, be on internet, to be on Zoom, to be engaged. But I needed to be here, and that's why I came back," he said.
Cruz acknowledged that the furious attention on social media also played a role.
"As it became a bigger and bigger firestorm, it became all the more compelling that I come back," he said. "I didn't want all the screaming and yelling about this trip to distract even one moment from the real issues Texans care about, which is keeping all of our families safe."
He said that he would have come back earlier in the day but that he couldn't get on an earlier flight "because the current restrictions require a Covid test, so I had to get a Covid test this morning before I could get on a flight back."
He ended his news conference by telling reporters to "stay warm."
In an interview with KTRK-TV of Houston, Cruz was asked about the outrage in Texas. "In hindsight, if I understood how it would be perceived, the reaction people would have, obviously I wouldn't have done it," he said.
The Senate is in recess this week.
Before Cruz released his initial statement, the Houston Police Department confirmed that Cruz's staff asked it Wednesday afternoon to assist him in his arrival and movements through Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
"They reached out to us, let us know that he was going to be arriving and could we assist, so upon his arrival to the Houston airport we monitored his movements," a police department spokesperson told NBC News.
Democrats were outraged, as millions of people across Texas have been struggling without power and heat and have suffered water system disruptions for several days in record low temperatures.
The state Democratic Party called on Cruz to resign from Congress, tweeting, "Texans are dying and you're on a flight to Cancun. #TedCruzRESIGN." It also sought to raise money for struggling Texans with a website called "FlyinTedCruz.com." The name is a play on former President Donald Trump's "Lyin' Ted" nickname for Cruz when they ran against each other in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
Galveston Mayor Craig Brown suggested that Cruz was out of touch, telling MSNBC: "It's a response to me of someone who didn't have to experience this. If he was in the midst of this and he was experiencing this, I think there would be a different attitude."
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., tweeted Thursday, "It must be easy not to believe in climate change if you can just leave millions of Texans suffering without power or water to sit on a beach in Cancún."
Robert Mann, who was communications director to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco during Hurricane Katrina, said he couldn't think of anyone as prominent as Cruz who had left his own state after a disaster struck.
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"This is usually the time that elected officials want to show their constituents how much they are committed to helping them," said Mann, who is now a journalism professor at Louisiana State University. "It defies all common and political sense to leave the state for anywhere at a time like this, much less take a vacation to a toasty, warm spot like Cancún. It's among the dumbest, most callous things I've ever seen a politician do."
In a radio interview with "The Joe Pags Show" on Monday, Cruz urged his fellow Texans to stay put.
"This storm is dangerous, and there's a second storm expected to hit this week, which will make things even worse, so if you can, stay home. Don't go out on the roads. Don't risk the ice," Cruz said. "I was speaking this weekend with a meteorologist expert who was saying [with] the combination of these two storms, we could see up to 100 people lose their lives this week in Texas. So don't risk it. Keep your family safe, and just stay home and hug your kids," he said.
In early December, Cruz tweeted a video clip of a CNN segment about how Democratic officials had been caught not following their own guidelines when it came to Covid-19. Cruz called them "hypocrites — complete and utter hypocrites."
He said in a tweet not to forget that Austin Mayor Steve Adler "took a private jet with eight people to Cabo and WHILE IN CABO recorded a video telling Austinites to 'stay home if you can ... this is not the time to relax.'"