Donald Trump stoked intense speculation about his narrowing search for a running mate today as he met privately with the apparent finalists in Indianapolis, the culmination of a months-long, frequently televised talent contest now approaching its season finale.
One by one, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee met with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama, summoning them for last-minute gatherings after weeks of teasing his uncertainty on social media and on the campaign trail.
The day also carried the lure of intrigue: Trump initially was expected to depart Indiana on Tuesday evening, hours after Pence had a well-received audition for the running-mate role at a raucous Trump rally in Westfield.
Instead, after his plane experienced unidentified mechanical issues, he dined with Pence Tuesday night in downtown Indianapolis and visited the governor’s residence Wednesday morning. He was joined Wednesday by his eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner; his sons Donald Jr. and Eric; and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be your governor or your vice president, who the hell knows?” Trump had said Tuesday night at the campaign rally, as thousands of supporters cheered.
The denouement ran like a script across Indianapolis, as reporters and television crews scrambled to capture footage of Trump and the vice presidential hopefuls. Trump told The Washington Post earlier in the week that he plans to announce his choice by Friday, but aides said news of his selection could emerge earlier.
The candidate and his family decided over the weekend to meet with each of the leading contenders as Trump continued to deliberate, according to a Trump ally. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie campaigned with the candidate in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and spent time with the campaign team all day, and sat with Trump as they flew between cities. Christie spent Wednesday in Washington at the Williard InterContinental hotel holding meetings for Trump’s presidential transition project and was in touch with senior campaign aides.
Picking a running mate is one of the most consequential decisions a presidential candidate can make before Election Day. It offers a chance to breathe new energy into a campaign but also can weigh down a candidate with unforeseen baggage. Many GOP strategists say Trump – who has struggled to stay on message in recent months amid missteps and controversies – needs a running mate who can defend him from a deluge of attacks and negative media attention.
The campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has attacked Trump in recent weeks, mocking his grasp of American government and questioning his character and integrity.
“In times like these, we need a president who can help pull us together, not split us apart. And that is why I believe Donald Trump is so dangerous,” Clinton said Wednesday during a speech at the historic Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. “His campaign is as divisive as any we have seen in our lifetimes. It is built on stoking mistrust and pitting American against American. It’s there in everything he says and everything he promises to do as president.”
With Trump preparing to formally accept the GOP nomination next week at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the campaign is eager to reset months of discord with a display of unity, particularly with members of the Republican establishment who are still skeptical of Trump’s candidacy.
Trump and his aides have said the presumptive nominee has looked for candidates who have political experience and an ability to work with lawmakers in Washington.
A Trump ally described the conversations with the various contenders as opportunities for Trump to sit with his leading candidates and have his family meet them. Manafort in recent days has been a proponent of picking a seasoned elected official, said people familiar with the discussions.
At the top of that list is Pence, who has built a rapport with Trump and his family in recent weeks. His political experience and his reputation as a staunch social conservative make him an appealing choice for Trump, who has struggled to win over segments of the hard right and the Republican establishment.
Gingrich, who is considered a finalist, was not aware of the Pence meeting until he saw news reports, according to a person close to the former House speaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Sessions was spotted boarding a flight to Indiana on Wednesday afternoon. He was to fly with Trump to California later Wednesday, where the real estate mogul planned to hold several fundraisers.
Pence introduced Trump during a joint campaign rally Tuesday evening in Westfield, Ind., delivering a short but fiery speech in which he compared the candidate to President Ronald Reagan. It was largely viewed as a try-out for the role of chief cheerleader, much like recent appearances by Gingrich and Christie.
“Hillary and her party have been sliding so far to Bernie’s leftist agenda, it’s hard to keep track of it,” Pence told the cheering crowd, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s Democratic primary rival. “To paraphrase the director of the FBI, I think it would be ‘extremely careless’ to elect Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States.”
In an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel on Tuesday night, Trump said that he has narrowed his list to five people and that he has a “pretty good idea” about whom he will select.
Trump said that his pick will be one of the politicians who has been publicly discussed, and that he doesn’t plan to make an out-of-the-blue choice.
“I’m not doing this for surprises. I’m not doing this for games,” he said, adding that he wants a running mate who will help him get elected and will be “good” in the position.
Trump continued to feed the hype during an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, in which he said he’s getting closer to deciding. “I am narrowing it down. I mean, I’m at three, potentially four,” he told Bret Baier. “But in my own mind, I probably am thinking about two.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Jose A. DelReal, Robert Costa