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Veep show: who will Trump pick for his running mate?

We are in the fifth week of Donald Trump’s ‘hush money’ trial and the real scandal is that it’s all so intensely boring. Sex, porn-star witnesses, shady lawyers, a president in the dock – the headlines are a tabloid dream. The crux of the case, however, is a bunch of tedious charges to do with tax reporting and accountancy. Who wants to read about that?  

Trump is ‘not looking for an heir because that would be Macbeth or King Lear, a bloodbath’

Trump adores the attention, naturally. As the greatest showman of the 21st century he understands that we, the people, need fresh drama and new characters. That’s why, while railing every day against the ‘weaponisation’ of the justice system, he’s also busy teasing fans with a more intriguing subplot: who might he pick as his running mate in 2024? 

 In fact, the trial in Manhattan is now doubling up as a sort of pick-me-please pageant for vice-presidential hopefuls. On Monday, J.D. Vance, the Ohio Senator, showed up in court to parade his loyalty. The next day, Florida congressman Byron Donalds and the entrepreneur-turned-politician Vivek Ramaswamy put in appearances, as did Trump’s latest favourite billionaire, Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota.

Trump likes to hire people who look, in his words, ‘straight out of central casting’. Burgum, an obviously rich man with a square jaw and a blonde spouse, ticks some of his favourite boxes. ‘There’s a personal chemistry with Burgum,’ says Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. ‘And President Trump is not just looking for a vice- president to fly around going to funerals. Burgum has that executive experience that could help share the burden of taking on the administrative state.’

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum at a Trump campaign rally in New Jersey, 11 May 2024 (Getty Images)

Last weekend, at a rally in New Jersey, Trump set tongues wagging by introducing the crowd to Governor Burgum and his wife Kathryn. ‘Just an incredible couple,’ he said. ‘You won’t find anybody better than this gentleman… You know he made his money in technology, but he probably knows about energy more than anybody I know. So get ready for something… Just get ready.’

Was that a strong hint Burgum is the leading contender to be the vice-presidential nominee? An intimation Burgum will be his secretary of state in charge of energy? Or just Trump reprising the TV role he loves most: CEO of The Apprentice, toying with his audience about which contestant he likes best? Nobody knows and that’s half the fun. In recent months, the Trump campaign has been firing out regular emails about the big VP decision. The latest, sent on Monday, is headlined ‘CONFIDENTIAL TRUMP MEMO: My next Vice President will be …’  Signed at the bottom by Donald J Trump, it reads: ‘I couldn’t imagine making this decision without you… you hold a special place in my heart. MAKE YOUR PICK.’ Supporters can then submit the name of their preferred nominee along with a filled-out questionnaire about the qualities they regard as most important in a Republican vice-president – in return for a campaign donation, of course.

Campaign insiders tend to dismiss ‘veep talk’ as scuttlebutt for the rubes. ‘Only Trump knows and only he will decide,’ says one. ‘I’m not even sure he knows,’ says another. ‘He has a shortlist in his head and that’s where it will stay until he decides.’ Usually, vice-presidential nominees are announced only a few days before the party’s national convention in the summer, and this year’s big Republican jamboree in Milwaukee will not begin until 15 July. A lot can change.

Probe a little deeper, though, and you get a sense of frantic scrabbling behind the scenes and jockeying for position. One source expresses concern that the vetting process for possible candidates has been ‘slapdash’. It hasn’t escaped anybody’s notice that, while Trump may be younger than President Joe Biden, he turns 78 next month and cannot serve a third term. Even if Trump loses in November, his vice-presidential nominee may well become leader of the MAGA movement and the next Republican president.

Bannon says that Trump is ‘not looking for an heir because that would be Macbeth or King Lear, a bloodbath.

‘You know this whole process is not just about the vice-president slot. It’s all about getting face time with Trump and also with MAGA, the movement, ahead of the next administration or 2028. All these people are getting exposure in places where Trump people see them. It’s really going to be The Cabinet Apprentice.’ 

When it comes to the veep role, there’s little doubt that Trump is looking for loyalty. Vance has been burnishing his credentials on that score. As well as appearing in Manhattan this week, he’s making all the right noises on television. ‘The world is on fire,’ he told Fox News recently. ‘And I sort of see Donald Trump as a bit of a fireman.’

Vance is an America Firster best-known for his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, about growing up very poor in drug-addled Appalachia. He’s a devout Catholic and a classic Trump-nationalist in the sense that he leans left on the economy and right on immigration and the culture wars. But he’s not crazy – in fact, the actual far right is suspicious of him, since his political ascent has been well funded and the ultra-progressive executives at Netflix turned his book into a film. Vance is also quite a plodding speaker, which could help his chances: in 2016, Trump chose Mike Pence as his vice-president at least in part because he was so dull as to be unthreatening. (Pence also reassured white Protestant Republicans that Trump was one of them.)

Presidential campaigns usually try to recruit a veep who helps with voters from a swing state or a particular demographic, religious or minority group. Trump tends to have no truck with such conventional thinking and it’s hard to think of a Republican figure who might help him win any particular battleground state. Still, in 2024, he might pick a Hispanic or an African-American, someone who could increase his already growing appeal among those sections of the US population. The most fancied Hispanic candidate for now is ‘Little Marco’ Rubio, Trump’s former presidential adversary, who realised after 2016 that the best way to get ahead was to move away from the old Republican establishment and towards the Trumpian worldview. It would be quite the turnaround if Trump ended up nominating the man who once insulted his small hands. Rubio is also the senator from Florida, which, because of the electoral college system, might mean Trump would have to move out of his Floridian home in Mar-a-Lago. Rubio would, however, be a popular choice among mega-money donors, whose whims always have to be considered.

When it comes to African-Americans, the most talked about contenders are Ben Carson, Trump’s former secretary of housing and urban development, and Tim Scott, the senator for South Carolina. 

Scott’s easy-going, biddable character is thought to make him well suited to what Trump wants. He is also said to be well regarded among both moderates and conservatives, and has done some noble work addressing poverty and creating jobs. ‘I’ve long thought he was the standout candidate and lots of people agree with me,’ says one Trump adviser. Other Republican insiders are less sure. ‘He ran a shitty presidential campaign and his recent media appearances have been terrible,’ says one. 

Tim Scott at a Get Out the Vote rally in South Carolina, 23 February 2024 (Getty Images)

It’s long been thought that, since Trump’s clearest electoral weakness is with suburban women, he would do well to pick a female candidate. Trump himself has said he likes ‘the concept’ of a woman running mate. It’s the reality of finding one that’s proving more difficult. Senior figures on the campaign are still pushing for Nikki Haley, his most successful Republican challenger in 2024, though Trump ruled her out on his Truth Social platform – ‘but I wish her well!’

Kristi Noem, the good-looking Governor of South Dakota, was once thought to be a strong contender. But she made the mistake of allegedly having an affair with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s dodgy former campaign manager, and found herself frozen out. Then, last week, Noem spectacularly blew up any presidential ambitions she may still have had by publishing her memoir, No Going Back. In the book, she confesses that, 20 years ago, she shot and killed her 14-month-old dog Cricket in a gravel pit. She further admitted to executing a ‘nasty and mean’ goat on the same day, in what appears to have been a deranged animal-slaughtering frenzy.

Some have suggested that Noem was making a desperate last-ditch bid for Trump’s attention, since he famously hates dogs. ‘She was trying to say, “We’re farmers: we make tough decisions”,’ says another Republican consultant. ‘But you don’t kill America’s most beloved animal.’

A less disastrous figure might be Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, who was much tipped at the start of the year. The word in Republican circles, however, is that Trump considers her insufficiently telegenic for his ticket. That might also rule out Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s rotund former press secretary, who is now the Governor of Arkansas. Yet Nigel Farage, who’s been spending more time in Trumpland of late, say he thinks Trump ‘trusts Sanders and for Trump trust is a bigger issue than whether someone looks good on a catwalk’.

Tulsi Gabbard at the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, 22 February 2024 (PA Images)

According to the bookmakers, the woman with the best chance of being Trump’s veep is Tulsi Gabbard, who has good looks, Samoan heritage and a military background. As a former Democratic presidential candidate and an anti-war figure who opposed Covid vaccine mandates, she also has considerable maverick appeal. She might attract voters who are tempted to back the independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And she’s already done what the next Republican vice-president will have to do before the election: clashed with the incumbent veep Kamala Harris on a debate stage. In 2020, Tulsi tore into Kamala’s anti-progressive record on criminal reform and foreign policy, a viral moment that helped bury Harris’s bid for the White House.

Then again, any politician who can string a sentence together would fancy his or her chances in a vice-presidential debate against Harris’s mind-blowing ineloquence. Which brings us to another thought that might be buzzing around Trump’s head: he can pick whoever he wants because really it’s all about him. He might even choose one of his children: Ivanka or Donald Jr. What could sound better than Trump-Trump 2024?  

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