One day this past May, Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., reached out to a senior adviser to Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who left the presidential race just a few weeks before. As a candidate, Kasich declared in March that Trump was “really not prepared to be president of the United States,” and the following month he took the highly unusual step of coordinating with his rival Senator Ted Cruz in an effort to deny Trump the nomination. But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
“Making America great again” was the casual reply.
Ultimately, Trump chose Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, not Kasich, to be his running mate. (Neither Donald Jr. nor Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, replied to multiple requests on Tuesday for comment for this article. After the article was posted, Donald Jr. disputed the Kasich adviser’s account.) About this, both much and little can be made. On one hand, voters do not seem to care all that much about who the No. 2 is when they go to the polls. On the other, how a presidential candidate goes about picking that person offers an early look at the nominee’s executive style. In Trump’s case — based on the recollection of over half a dozen operatives and elected officials working with both the Trump campaign and potential running mates Trump considered — the winnowing of his initial wish list reveals a distinct blend of practicality, impetuousness and disengagement.
In the middle of May, Trump’s two top advisers at the time, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, generated the initial list. It consisted of 16 names. They showed the list to the nominee in his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower. Trump perused it and, without suggesting any additions or deletions, nodded that it looked fine.
The two advisers then brought the full list to the Washington lawyer A.B. Culvahouse, who famously vetted John McCain’s running-mate list in 2008 and concluded that the eventual pick, Sarah Palin, would be “high-risk, high-reward.” The Trump list did not feature any wild cards like Palin. Only one person, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was a non-politician, reflecting Trump’s long-expressed preference that his choice be someone who knew the ropes in Washington. Another, Jeff Sessions, was a known ally — but, as a senator from the red state of Alabama, brought nothing to the ticket.
Two were former primary opponents: Marco Rubio, whom Trump never formally asked (though both he and Manafort called Rubio frequently to discuss Florida politics); and Kasich, who was viewed with wistfulness by the Trump team as the perfect choice, but for the likelihood that he would be a prickly subordinate (as well as the nettlesome detail that Kasich seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the job).
Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina was liked by Trump but would have to resign from his seat — which he is defending this year — to run. And Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who met with Trump in Las Vegas in December, seemed to have everything — charisma, Latino heritage, swing-state appeal — except that he had endorsed Kasich, a fact that Trump kept returning to, and which eventually became a disqualifier, according to a senior adviser to the campaign.
Five on the list were women — among them, former Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina. Before the list was drawn up, Trump also expressed interest in Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, but after Martinez did not return repeated phone calls from Lewandowski, Trump said that he was done with her — and then bashed the governor on a campaign stop in Albuquerque in late May. (Haley’s overt lack of interest in the job made her an early scratch as well.)
The last woman on the list was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — a somewhat surprising inclusion, given Trump’s current disdain for the Iraq war with which Bush’s closest foreign-policy adviser will forever be associated. People “loosely affiliated” with the campaign, as Rice’s chief of staff Georgia Godfrey put it, paid a call to Rice and were informed that she had no interest in the job.
By early June, Manafort and Lewandowski had requested that Culvahouse do a formal vetting of six individuals on the list: Sessions, Ernst, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. Ernst met with the nominee in Trump Tower, but her interest was only slight, and Trump’s seemed not much greater. She dropped off the list with no fanfare.
Corker was another matter. Though the much-respected Tennessee politician and former businessman had signaled his early interest in the job to Trump advisers, he did not share Trump’s taste for alley fighting. At a meeting earlier this month in Trump Tower, Corker separately told Manafort, Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, that he didn’t think he was the best fit for the job. Corker then said the same thing to Trump, adding that he considered himself better suited for a cabinet position — say, Treasury or State Department — than as Trump’s brawling mate. Trump squinted at the senator for several seconds before saying, “O.K.” They then flew to North Carolina for a rally, where Trump called a tongue-tied Corker to the stage — leaving many observers to believe that this was the senator’s audition, and that he flunked it.
According to a prominent Republican who was regularly briefed on the vice-president considerations, Corker and Pence were the favorites, along with Kasich, who would soon be hosting the G.O.P. convention in Cleveland. But Kasich effectively removed himself from the list by telling Trump in a phone conversation at the end of May that a joint ticket would be like two corporations with completely different philosophies and styles trying to merge.
Trump nonetheless hoped that Kasich would at least formally endorse him by the time the convention began on July 18. On July 4, the Kasich adviser John Weaver called Manafort at the governor’s request and flatly informed him that no such pre convention endorsement would occur. Spurned twofold, Donald Trump would lose a vice president but gain an enemy.
Meanwhile, Trump’s final choice for the job, Mike Pence, did not hail from a swing state or arrive with presidential-campaign experience, as would have been the case with Kasich. But he was a Republican, and a governor, and popular among conservative evangelicals. Most important, he knew how to say “yes” to Trump.