Ben Carson held one of the strangest press conferences of the 2016 campaign cycle on Wednesday, to attack Republican rival Ted Cruz for spreading rumors that the retired neurosurgeon was dropping out on the night of the Iowa caucuses. Carson refused to mention the Texas senator’s name throughout.

Carson had announced that the topic of the hastily convened event at the National Press Club in Washington DC would be “deceptive Iowa caucus tactics”, adding: “How a person conducts his life or campaign is an indication of who he is. In Matthew 7, Jesus Himself says that a tree – and people of faith – are known by their fruit, not just the words they say.”

Carson’s statement to the press did not mention Cruz or Iowa. Instead, he focused on his worries about what type of image children might receive if society settled for anything less than “complete excellence” from politicians, and proudly proclaimed that he did not take money from special interest groups.

Reporters had to tease out of him the fact that the press conference was called in response to the Cruz’s campaign’s conduct and it took a number of questions for Carson to explicitly state this.

The retired neurosurgeon told reporters that Cruz had apologized to him and that the Texas senator had insisted he did not know anything about what happened. Carson acknowledged that Cruz “could very well have not known about it” but said: “It’s obvious there were people in his organization who not only knew about it but carried it out.”

Cruz has issued an apology of sorts to the Carson campaign for spreading the rumor on election night that Carson was dropping out of the race, which Cruz characterized as an honest “mistake”.

“Last night, when our political team saw the CNN post saying that Dr Carson was not carrying on to New Hampshire and South Carolina, our campaign updated grassroots leaders just as we would with any breaking news story,” Cruz said in a statement on Tuesday.

“That’s fair game. What the team then should have done was send around the follow-up statement from the Carson campaign clarifying that he was indeed staying in the race when that came out.”

The incident led fellow candidate Donald Trump to accuse Cruz of fraud on Wednesday, writing on Twitter : “Many people voted for Cruz over Carson because of this Cruz fraud.”

In a response to a question from the Guardian about whether Cruz should fire the staff members responsible, Carson said: “Let me put it this way. When there were things in my campaign I couldn’t agree with after doing an investigation, I made changes. I think that’s what a good leader does: if there are things going on that you don’t agree with, you need to make changes. If he agrees with it, he doesn’t need to make changes,” said Carson.

He added: “That would be hypocritical, wouldn’t it, to go against your beliefs?”

The retired neurosurgeon also refused to comment on Trump’s demands for a do-over in Iowa as a result of Cruz’s tactics.

Carson did not take responsibility for the initial statement from his campaign that spurred the rumors that he might drop out. A campaign spokesman told CNN on Monday night that the doctor would be going home to Florida for some “fresh clothes”.

Carson insisted to reporters: “I didn’t make that announcement. Don’t blame me.”

He further dodged questions by about whether, like Cruz, he should be responsible for his campaign’s statement, saying defensively: “Is it OK after three weeks on the road to go home get a fresh change of clothes? Does make someone an evil, horrible person?”

In response to a question about whether he might indeed drop out of the race, Carson compared the election to the game of baseball. “You know, one of the things that really represents America is baseball. Have you noticed in a baseball game, there are nine innings and you don’t call the game after the first inning?”

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