Trump Turns Usually Secretive VP Search Into a Very Public Audition

The selection process has been an act of improvisation.

Donald Trump, who broke political rule after political rule on the way to becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is breaking a few more as he decides on a running mate.

While most White House campaigns take extraordinary lengths to maintain secrecy during their vice presidential selection process, Trump has taken a more improvisational—and public—route as he nears the big announcement, which is expected to come next week but could happen as late as the July 18-21 GOP convention.

Trump incited speculation about a parade of potential picks in recent days. On Monday, he expressed excitement about three Republicans: Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. On Tuesday, he praised a general named as a short-lister, and gave Bob Corker private access to his family before appearing with the Tennessee senator at a rally in North Carolina. By Wednesday, Corker ruled out his candidacy and Ernst quelled conjecture by confirming she wasn’t being officially vetted. Gingrich was spotted exiting the golden revolving doors at Manhattan’s Trump Tower, ahead of performing at a Wednesday night rally in the high-priority swing state of Ohio. 

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Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is considered one of the leading running-mate contenders, abruptly headed to Italy for an impromptu vacation with his wife for the week, just days before Trump is expected to make his announcement. 

People familiar with the VP search said Trump has not made a decision, though he was committed to making the announcement late next week at a site to be determined. As of Wednesday morning, they said that five people were on Trump’s finalist list, and that no new names would be vetted. 

But Trump, defending against Democratic Party operatives who claimed in a news release Wednesday afternoon that Ernst and Corker passed on the job because Trump doesn’t have the judgment to be president, said people are clamoring to be his No. 2.

“Three or four called me up, all wanting to be considered,” Trump told Fox News. “I’m actually looking at 10 people,” he said, including “some names that haven’t surfaced yet.”

Trump is in the nation’s capital on Thursday to meet with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign and another potential running mate, and other members of Congress.

Trump patted Gingrich’s shoulder as he took the stage, but said nothing about the former speaker until the audience repeatedly chanted “Neeeeeeeewt.”

“I like that, too. We like Newt,” Trump said. “And I’m not saying anything, and I’m not telling even Newt anything. But I can tell you in one form or another Newt Gingrich is going to be involved with our government.”

Trump said Gingrich is smart and tough “and he says I’m the biggest thing he’s ever seen in the history of politics.”

“Newt’s going to be involved if I can get approval from his wife. That may be tough, but that’s OK,” Trump said.

Later, when the crowd again yelled Gingrich’s name, Trump told them: “I’m not saying it’s Newt but if it’s Newt, nobody’s going to be beating him in those debates that’s for sure.”

As a first-time candidate without deep ties to the party, Trump’s public try-outs are smart strategy for selecting the right person and associating himself with the establishment as he raises money to compete in battleground states, operatives said. 

“He not only wants to make sure that everybody can talk to crowd get them excited, but he wants to showcase that there are elected officials that are willing to stand with Donald Trump,” said GOP strategist Jason Osborne, a senior communications aide to Ben Carson’s presidential campaign who now supports Trump.

“It could end up being that none of these folks are the vice presidential pick but it does reinforce the message that he’s not doing this alone,” Osborne said.

During the Republican primary, Ernst was cool toward Trump. But after a Fourth of July lunch with him at his private golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, she was impressed, she said.

“I think, wow, if everybody had the opportunity, they would maybe see a different side of Donald Trump. I was very impressed with the thought and consideration he was putting into the topics we discussed,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Trump’s hint-dropping is also a savvy marketing strategy, according to an official at a corporate intelligence firm that has vetted political candidates for decades.

“Mr. Trump is an entertainer, and these calculated leaks on Twitter may be the equivalent of running promos for his big prime-time announcement show,” said Jon Lenzner, CEO of Investigative Group International. 

Trump’s last-minute, ad-libbing style has been a source of frustration for GOP leaders, and if his vice presidential selection process is any indication, this trend could carry through to a Trump White House.

“It’s hard to know how much vetting has been quietly going on behind the scenes up to this point,” said Republican strategist Beth Myers, who led the search for Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.

“But because the convention is early and the nominating contest ended late, this was always going to be a condensed process. Historically, going into the convention without the VP pick finalized is not unusual. The convention in 2012 was late, so there were many reasons to make the selection well in advance of the convention. But this year that’s not such a factor.”

Trump didn’t ask his campaign to poll on a laundry list of names, but asks just about everyone he encounters in private meetings, fundraisers and on his trips around the country for their opinion, aides said.

Several North Carolina lawmakers were slated to have a backstage audience with Trump before his Raleigh rally Tuesday night—and hoped to chat veep with him—but the candidate arrived late because of a rainstorm.

Gary Pendleton, a member of the North Carolina House and retired Army brigadier general, said he hopes Trump recruits ex-presidential rival Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, “because he’s Hispanic and he’s from the south.”

“He’d better pick a Southerner,” Pendleton said. “Two Yankees wouldn’t be very good.”

In a Bloomberg Politics national poll last month, almost a third of likely voters supporting Trump said Gingrich would be his best pick. Christie was picked by nearly a tenth of Trump supporters. Rubio (24 percent) and Ohio Governor John Kasich (18 percent) received a large share of the support but seem unlikely to end up on the ticket.