Trump’s 2024 Veepstakes Is Already Under Way

Who will be the heir apparent? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When political parties are led by very old people, speculation naturally focuses on heirs apparent. This helps explain the toxic Beltway game of questioning Vice-President Kamala Harris’s future viability as a candidate in order to generate interest in possible alternatives for Democrats. But to the extent that Donald Trump is already being conceded the 2024 Republican nomination if he wants it, his decision on a running mate could be equally significant and certainly a lot more open to infinite possibilities. So it’s only mildly premature that Politico has now kicked off the 2024 GOP Veepstakes with some insights into the 45th president’s thinking, so to speak. The fundamental vetting principle Trump is expected to follow couldn’t be much clearer:

Those familiar with his thinking say his selection will be determined by two factors that rate highest in Trump’s estimation: unquestioned loyalty and an embrace of the former president’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

So that rules out ab initio a return to the Trump-Pence tickets of 2016 and 2020. On January 6, Pence flunked the ultimate test of loyalty under fire, and even if Trump vacillates as to whether his veep deserved to be strung up by the Capitol riot mob he incited, no degree of crawling, even from the master toady from Indiana, will restore him to his exalted position so near to the throne.

It’s less clear whether the loyalty test for a 2024 veep requires a history of consistent advocacy for the Big Lie, or just the absence of any disqualifying scorn for it. So it’s hard to discern at this point how many prospective veeps can make the first cut in order to gain favor due to secondary considerations:

Those familiar with Trump’s thinking say his prospective vice-president selection would likely draw from three general lanes of candidates: women, conservatives of color or a trusted adviser — or a “consigliere,” as one adviser described it.

Politico mentions Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn and Iowa governor Kim Reynolds as potential running mates in the “women” lane. Blackburn is clearly suspect on the loyalty test, since she voted to certify Biden electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania after the Capitol riot, reversing her earlier position favoring an election coup. Like Pence, she panicked when things got real. She would clearly have to make a lot of retroactive noise about the “steal” to overcome that moment of betrayal, roughly equivalent to Peter denying Jesus after the arrest that led to the Crucifixion. Reynolds is a closer case: Other than condemning the January 6 violence, she’s managed to remain mum on the Big Lie, though she (along with Senator Chuck Grassley) had no problem standing on a platform with Trump in Iowa last month as he ranted about the stolen election.

The dominant figure in the “conservatives of color” lane is South Carolina senator Tim Scott, whose stock among Republicans of every persuasion went up sharply after his televised “response” to Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress in April. Can he pass the “loyalty test”? Experts may differ. Like Blackburn, Scott voted to confirm Biden electors on January 6, but did so with a lawyerly statement of sympathy and appreciation for Trump combined with the sad conclusion there was no constitutional avenue to vindicate the terrible things that might have been done to the 45th president. Scott even left open the possibility of being convinced by further evidence that the election had been stolen, which could also leave open the possibility of a future subscription to the Big Lie in all its particulars.

But if Trump decides to apply a “strict constructionist” loyalty test that excludes any expressions of doubt or nuance, the “conservative of color” lane would be lightly populated. Perhaps if his buddy Herschel Walker wins Republicans a Senate seat in 2022 while somehow laying to rest concerns about his mental health and alleged proclivity for domestic abuse, he might qualify. But otherwise, he may resort to prospects who (whatever their race or ethnicity) more rightly are categorized by the third lane mentioned by Politico: trusted advisers, or, to put it more colloquially, cronies.

Trump could go with a well-credentialed crony like former secretary of State Mike Pompeo or former representative and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. But you have to figure a big part of the case for a crony running mate is to establish definitively that a relationship of trust with the Big Man is more important than all the conventional résumé lines you could imagine. This is how you wind up with a prospect like Richard (Ric) Grenell:

“Don’t sleep on Ric. Trump loves him, and unlike Pompeo or anyone else, he has no interest in running for president. That’s a big issue for Trump,” another adviser said of Grenell, who recently joined the board of directors for Trump’s super PAC.

Think about that for a moment. Despite his recently acquired MAGA credentials, Grenell’s background makes him a living nightmare for your average Trump enthusiast: a career diplomat with a degree from the Kennedy School; a former spokesman for the George W. Bush administration and for Mitt Romney; and an openly gay man living (from the perspective of Trump’s conservative Christian base) in sin with a longtime partner. Trump-Grenell seems preposterous until you consider that perhaps it could demonstrate the unconditional nature of the fealty that Trump demands and receives from supporters high and low. You can well imagine the former president in a Logan Roy moment savoring the humiliation of a Josh Hawley or a Ted Cruz when forced to praise the great man’s choice of a successor so far from the path to his affections they have trod.

After all, barring a genuine abolition of constitutional democracy (always an option) and a deal with the actual devil to elongate his life perpetually, this will be Trump’s last campaign, assuming he chooses to make it. His running mate will be not only the heir apparent for the presidency, but also for the MAGA movement, and he may not be able to bring himself to acknowledge anyone as worthy of that honor. He has a good excuse (other than jealousy for a popular younger pol) for passing over the obvious choice as a successor, Ron DeSantis, whose common Florida residency with Trump means (per Article II of the U.S. Constitution) the ticket would be denied the Sunshine State’s indispensable 30 electoral votes. It seems likely that Trump will select a pre-diminished running mate to ensure no one threatens to steal even an iota of his glory. But odds are even higher that he will keep us all guessing through another season or two of suspense.

Trump’s 2024 Veepstakes Is Already Under Way