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Being Trump's running mate, defending him, but not stealing the show

Being Trump's running mate, defending him, but not stealing the show

 


The cavalry of Republican vice presidential candidates and other party officials inside the courthouse for Donald J. Trump's criminal trial was so numerous one day this week that the group initially had struggling to organize themselves in the two rows reserved for guests of the defense team.

Stuck in their seats, they were immediately confronted with testimony accusing their party leader of trying to shield his 2016 presidential campaign from political damage by writing checks for bogus legal expenses to hide secret payments to a star porn.

None of the conservatives in the hearing room flinched or raised an eyebrow, including Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, both of whom are reportedly under consideration for Ms. .Trump.

Instead, their stoic, protective presence highlighted the biggest political dilemma facing ambitious Republicans who want Mr. Trump to pick them as vice president: how to fiercely defend him without stealing his precious spotlight.

The prize for finding the best approach could be a place at the top of every ballot in the country this fall.

He still wants killers to fight for him, said Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist who advised Mr. Trump's first presidential campaign. But he also needs someone with experience and skills who can help shape his message, massage it and make it stronger.

In other words, Mr. Trump might be looking for a straight man.

In 2016, he tapped Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana for a similar role. Mr. Pence's presence on the list helped reassure skeptical evangelical voters and establishment Republicans in Congress. He then served Mr. Trump dutifully before refusing to help overturn the 2020 election, a moral stance that fractured their relationship.

This year, Mr. Trump's vice presidential search is in its early stages. His team is still considering, for example, how much weight should be given to a candidate's ability to raise funds versus his political potential. But there is a growing consensus around the former president that he is leaning toward more experienced options who can campaign for the ticket without appearing to promote himself.

For example, he has shown renewed interest in relatively conventional Republicans like Mr. Burgum, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Mr. Trump also privately congratulated Representative Elise Stefanik of New York and Senator JD Vance of Ohio, who is close to Mr. Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., and is considered a leading candidate to the vice presidency. Mr. Vance attended the trial on Monday and spent much of the day denouncing the prosecution's main witness, making the kind of broadside that the judge in the case barred Mr. Trump from launching.

Realizing that it's sometimes a little lonely to sit up there yourself, I offered to come and maybe just be a friendly face in the courtroom, Mr. Vance said more late on Fox News.

Mr. Trump's team has also recently pushed potential vice presidential candidates to interview with media outlets other than conservative networks, such as Fox News and Newsmax, to test their performance against tougher questions as well. as their appeal to a wider audience.

This article is based on interviews with more than a half-dozen Republican operatives familiar with Mr. Trump's deliberations, all of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Mr. Trump has long resented aides and associates who exploit his brand for their own gain. But now, in his third presidential campaign, he has also lost his appetite for anyone who might add to the already substantial list of legal and policy issues clamoring for his attention.

That means some of the highest-profile Republicans who enjoy celebrity status within Mr. Trump's conservative movement appear to be falling off his radar as potential vice presidential candidates.

In recent weeks, his casual conversations about potential vice presidential picks have rarely mentioned candidates like Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia; or Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who ran for president this year.

To illustrate this moment for Mr. Trump, consider the two state capitals of Dakota.

The roughly 170 miles between Bismarck, ND, and Pierre, SD, is a relatively short distance for anyone crossing the Great Plains, but Republican leaders in each state are poles apart when it comes to the deliberations of former presidents.

In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem effectively fell out of contention after her book tour spiraled out of control over a series of bizarre passages, the most surprising being one detailing how she shot her farm dog 14 months, Cricket, in a gravel pit.

Several Trump advisers had considered her a distant candidate long before she spent much of the past few weeks defending her decision to personally depose her retriever. Even Mr. Trump had spoken privately to some associates about his reluctance to answer questions about the South Dakota governor and his judgment if she appeared on his ticket.

Privately, Mr. Trump expressed astonishment at Ms. Noem's book, telling his advisers that he would prefer not to worry about seeing his fellow Republicans kill their dogs. Other times, he made spontaneous jokes, warning his friends: Don't kill your dog, whatever you do.

Publicly, Mr. Trump did not want to exclude anyone. He is intrigued by stories of redemption and often delights in pleas for forgiveness from former opponents and critics.

But last week, Mr. Trump all but ruled out the possibility of selecting former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who was his last rival in the presidential primary race this year. And in a radio interview on Tuesday, he acknowledged that Ms. Noem's chances had dwindled.

It was hit hard, Mr. Trump said, adding that the dog story, you know, people hear it and people in different parts of the country probably feel a little differently, but it's a difficult story.

In North Dakota, Mr. Burgum's political standing appears to be on the rise.

The governor's public profile differs significantly from that of Ms. Noems. A day after breaking off his book tour, Mr. Burgum spoke nonstop for 30 minutes about residual funds and potential corn and bean yields as he unveiled his state budget proposal to a handful of people in a dreary conference room. A live broadcast of the event reached 132 viewers.

During his presidential campaign against Mr. Trump last year, Mr. Burgum was largely neglected by voters and the media. But he has grown closer to the former president in recent months.

Mr. Trump, who has long surrounded himself with wealthy former businessmen, is said to be intrigued by Mr. Burgum, who sold his software company to Microsoft for $1 billion more than two decades ago.

Mr. Trump also told his advisers that Mr. Burgum had the central appearance of a vice president and praised the governor's knowledge of energy. Mr. Burgum has recently become a frequent defender of Mr. Trump on television news, attended a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago last week and spoke to the former president at a campaign rally last Saturday in New Jersey.

After attending Mr. Trump's trial on Tuesday, Mr. Burgum pointed to presumptive Republican nominees leading over President Biden in recent polls as evidence that criminal proceedings in New York have little influence on the electors.

The conclusion that can be drawn, Mr. Burgum said of the polls, is that the American people have already acquitted Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump's options for vice president extend well beyond the two Dakota governors, but his choice can be seen as roughly the one each represents between the two corners of the party.

He needs someone who, above all else, does no harm, said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who served as an adviser to Mr. Trump's White House transition team after the 2016 elections. But he also needs someone who can help him build a team to launch and advance his agenda in Washington.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican who is up for re-election this year and has been discussed as an outside vice presidential candidate, sparked a trend of high-profile conservative appearances at the Manhattan courthouse with a visit last week.

Mr. Scott said he traveled to New York at the request of Susie Wiles, a top adviser to the Trump campaign, who oversaw Mr. Scott's successful runs for governor in 2010 and 2014.

When people are being persecuted, that's when they need you to show up, Mr. Scott said in an interview.

Mr. Scott said he had not spoken with Mr. Trump about potential vice presidential candidates, but he predicted the former president would add someone who could help him realize his vision of turning around the country.

Asked about Republicans trying to win points with Mr. Trump by publicly defending him, Mr. Scott pointed out what conservatives see as fatal flaws in the criminal case: What everyone should do is is talking about the facts.

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