Inside Trump’s ‘quiet’ VP search

Former President Donald Trump sealed the Republican presidential nomination nearly two months ago, and for more than two weeks he has been occupied by a criminal trial in New York.

But he appears to be in no hurry to name a running mate — someone who can keep a steady presence on the campaign trail while he spends much of his time in a courtroom.

Trump’s team has yet to move past the early stages of vetting vice presidential prospects, seven sources familiar with the process said. Top contenders have not received detailed questionnaires or other requests for information to help finalize a shortlist, though there are signs that they are being evaluated for their fundraising prowess.

A May 15 event planned with Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, notwithstanding, Trump is not yet auditioning potential picks one by one like he did in 2016 in the weeks before he chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Many of the VP hopefuls will join Trump this weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, for a fundraising retreat that could serve as a screening session.

Even so, it’s “going to be quiet for a while,” a Trump adviser said when asked about the search.

A source familiar with the vetting said that while the Trump team has yet to directly engage with prospects about the possibility of joining the ticket, the campaign has done initial deep dives on them.

Those whom Trump or others wired into the process have acknowledged are under consideration include Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Vance; Govs. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Kristi Noem of South Dakota; Reps. Byron Donalds of Florida and Elise Stefanik of New York; and Ben Carson, the Trump administration’s housing secretary. All but Carson are listed as “special guests” at this weekend’s retreat.

As ever, Trump’s unpredictability is the wild card, both for the timing of an announcement and for what candidates could be added to or subtracted from the mix.

A source close to one of the vice presidential prospects said the donor summit will be a measure of their fundraising talents — a data point that could be as instructive to Trump as anything that would come up in a traditional vetting process.

“It is certainly an opportunity for a collection of the most dynamic leaders of our commonsense movement to demonstrate the winning messages we have to end Biden’s weak and dangerously dishonest presidency,” said Brian Hughes, a senior Trump adviser. “Those who financially support President Trump and the America First agenda will see that they are helping save our nation with victory in November.”

“A person who tells you who or when President Trump is selecting a VP is a liar,” Hughes added, “unless it’s Donald J. Trump.”

A Trump world source said the so-called veepstakes is a frequent topic of conversation at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where he constantly peppers his guests with questions about his options. However, another Trump world source said not much movement is likely while Trump defends himself against 34 counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments made in his 2016 campaign.

“They’re not able to get him to focus on anything but his trial right now,” this person said.

In a brief return to the campaign trail Wednesday that took him to the Midwest battlegrounds of Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump complained that the trial was cramping his campaign style.

“I got to do two of these things a day,” he said at a rally in Freeland, Michigan.

In Waukesha, Wisconsin, Trump indicated that he did not feel pressure to quickly name a running mate for the purposes of deputizing a No. 2 to speak on his behalf while he is tied up in court.

“I think we’re getting the word out,” Trump said in an interview with WITI-TV of Milwaukee.

“I’ll be picking [a running mate], but probably not too much before the convention, which I happen to be having in the great state of Wisconsin,” he added.

Trump stuck to that timeline later in the interview when he was asked specifically about Burgum, Rubio, Scott and Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic House member from Hawaii, as potential picks. (“All good names,” he allowed.)

“Usually it’s done right around the convention,” which is scheduled to begin July 15 in Milwaukee, Trump said. “We’ll be making that decision, I think, closer to Wisconsin time.”

Despite the suggestion that Trump might want to move sooner, a “Wisconsin time” timeline would leave him about two months to make his choice — and it would align with the timing of past vice presidential picks, including Trump’s selection of Pence eight years ago.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016
Marc Short, who was a top aide to former Vice President Mike Pence, said Trump is “looking for complementary skills, not redundant skills.”Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Longtime lawyer A.B. Culvahouse conducted an extensive vetting process of those Trump was considering, including Pence. Trump did not formally meet with Pence to discuss the prospects of his being his running mate until the first weekend of July.

He also tested his prospective vice presidents — including then-Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — at rallies in the weeks before he made his decision. Pence joined him at an event in Indianapolis.

“How’s your governor doing, by the way? Good? Huh? I think so,” Trump said from the stage.

Marc Short, who had been Pence’s chief of staff on Capitol Hill, watched the selection process play out before he became a senior adviser on the vice presidential campaign.

“For Trump, a lot of it is the production value, but I think Trump was looking for complementary skills, not redundant skills,” Short said about the final rally in Indianapolis the night before Trump offered Pence the VP slot. “If you were up there and made a fool of yourself, it was certainly disqualifying. But you can never upstage him, so it’s a fine line.”

Ryan Williams, a senior aide on 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, recalled a similar timeline for that year’s rollout. Romney announced his choice of then-Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin a few weeks ahead of the August convention.

Williams noted several differences between that campaign and Trump’s bid this year, including a longer primary season for Romney, who was still battling former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in April. And Romney earned plenty of free media coverage as the political world speculated about the candidates on his shortlist, including Christie and Rubio.

“Part of the veepstakes is a media tease, to draw more attention to your candidacy,” Williams said. “Trump is different. He already has all the attention he needs, and he’s spending most of his time in a courtroom.”

Williams also suggested that Trump could run a “less structured” selection process than past campaigns have.

“Most of the names he’s floated seem pretty well-vetted already,” Williams said. “Tim Scott and Marco Rubio have run for president before. My sense is this is going to come down to Trump’s gut.”

There are other reasons making a choice now might not be in Trump’s best interests. Many of the candidates are regulars on Fox News and other programs, defending and, consciously or not, auditioning for Trump, who is often described as a powerful audience of one.

Just this week, Burgum, an independently wealthy software entrepreneur before he became governor, was on Fox News making a pitch for billionaires to support Trump as the words “Feeling the Burg” appeared on screen. Scott appeared on Fox News to call the gag order against Trump in his hush money case “disgusting.” And Stefanik made her way to the conservative news channel to call for the deportation of college campus protesters she labeled “antisemitic” who are in the U.S. on foreign student visas.

On Wednesday night, Noem and Vance had turns in prime time. For Noem it was a bit of a cleanup act on Fox News — to defend her decision to shoot and kill a family dog that she described as “extremely dangerous.” She has been under fire since she revealed the story in a soon-to-be-published book, raising questions about her chances of being picked as Trump’s running mate.

On CNN, meanwhile, Vance was pressed about his interest in being Trump’s vice president, given the threats of deadly violence against Pence after he split with Trump and refused to block certification of the 2020 election results.

“I’m extremely skeptical that Mike Pence’s life was ever in danger,” Vance said.

“Did a few people say some bad things? Sure,” he added. “But do we blame Donald Trump for every bad thing that’s ever been said by a participant in American democracy? I think that’s an absurd standard.”

Why, a GOP strategist close to Trump world wondered, would Trump risk lessening the enthusiasm and demand for some of his most effective allies to be on TV by eliminating them from VP contention now?

“I do think this happens later rather than sooner,” the strategist said, drawing a comparison to Trump’s old reality TV show. “Trump likes the drama of drawn-out, ‘Apprentice’-like auditions.”

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