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Trump Isn’t Choosing a Running Mate. He’s Casting a Co-Star.
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By The New York Times
Published 1 month ago on
June 17, 2024

Former President Donald Trump's approach to picking a running mate in 2024 mirrors his experience hosting "The Apprentice," with public jockeying by various candidates resembling a circus. (AP/Morry Gash)

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Opinion by Ramin Setoodeh on June 17, 2024.

The public jockeying by various candidates to become Donald Trump’s running mate has taken on the air of a circus. At the Manhattan criminal courthouse where he was being tried for falsifying business records (and was found guilty on all 34 counts), a parade of acolytes appeared, often wearing Trump-red ties, in apparent hopes of impressing their potential future ticket mate: Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, Senator Rick Scott of Florida, Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, the businessman and former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and others.

Aspiring contenders clamored for camera time, made public declarations of support and later posted on social media about the injustice of the verdict. Mr. Trump has invited other potential running mates, such as Senator Tim Scott, to join him at his rallies, where they often serve in the role of a hype man, introducing the main attraction in glowing terms.

A traditional vice-presidential search happens discreetly, with possible picks lobbying behind the scenes and through proxies while publicly downplaying their interest. Mr. Trump’s search is playing out more like a cattle call audition.

Trumps ‘Veepstakes’

But Mr. Trump is always governing for the cameras — his favorite constituency. Viewed through that lens, his veepstakes make much more sense. The process is playing out in public, with unvarnished careerism on view, in the familiar form of a reality show. Mr. Trump was America’s first reality-TV president, and now he’s reviving the hits: He’s turned the veepstakes into a reboot of “The Apprentice.”

It’s a mentality I came to understand intimately while interviewing him, starting in 2021 after he’d left the White House, for a book on “The Apprentice.” Mr. Trump gave me hours of his time, often extending our scheduled meetings at Trump Tower as we watched clips of the show together. I discerned that, in many ways, Mr. Trump sees his runs for president and his time in the White House as extensions of his reality show. In our conversations, he seemed engrossed by his image and the minutiae of his TV career, far more than by anything he achieved as leader of the free world.

His experience hosting “The Apprentice” informs how he views the world and how he makes his decisions. He often talked about job applicants in terms of “central casting,” channeling the spirit of a producer assembling a movie cast. For the show, Mr. Trump would stop by casting calls to meet thousands of contestants, and he told me he believed that he could identify star power simply by the way someone looked. That attitude helps explain what he’s looking for in a V.P.: the ability to generate headlines and prompt the kind of drama that ensures his audience won’t look away.

Trump Values Loyalty

In this worldview, loyalty is everything. Mr. Trump loved talking to me about Joan Rivers, one of his favorite “Celebrity Apprentice” winners, who publicly spoke of him fondly and credited him with reviving her career after her time on the show in 2009. Celebrity is also a fundamental qualification. He told me that in the White House he considered calling on Dennis Rodman, the former N.B.A. star and “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant, for help in navigating foreign diplomacy, as he admired how Mr. Rodman had built a close relationship with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator. Mr. Trump also brought the “Apprentice” contestant and notorious onscreen troublemaker Omarosa Manigault Newman with him to D.C. as a political adviser. “A lot of things I do in life, I do as an experiment,” he told me, when explaining that decision. “I mean, I do it out of human interest — just to see who’s loyal, who’s not loyal.”

The “experiment” Mr. Trump is conducting is how he can hold our attention. He was taught by Hollywood that one sure way to get renewed is to keep viewers guessing and stir up drama. That mentality is evident in his search for a vice president. It’s been reported that Marco Rubio, who’s spent his national political career representing Florida in the Senate, would be asked to move out of state largely as a gesture to prove his loyalty to Mr. Trump. There’s some debate over whether the Constitution bars both members of the ticket from being registered to vote in the same state, and while Mr. Trump could easily change his residence to Trump Tower or Bedminster, N.J., pressuring Mr. Rubio to relocate would be the ultimate loyalty test.

Then again, to students of “The Apprentice,” it may seem unlikely he’d pick the man he once derided as “Little Marco.” Mr. Trump often seemed to purposefully string along a candidate as a red herring in some of the show’s seasons, such as when he kept Gary Busey hanging around the boardroom past the point of plausibility.

Trump Could Be Finding a Big Personality for VP

He’s likely also looking for a running mate with a big personality for the role of his sidekick — but not so much personality that it would overshadow him. That distinction may not bode well for a candidate like Mr. Ramaswamy, who chases the spotlight and who ran to defeat Mr. Trump in this year’s primaries. We might think of Mr. Ramaswamy like the “Apprentice” contestant Sam Solovey from the first season, whom many viewers found excessively annoying as he pulled stunts like trying to sell a glass of lemonade for $1,000 on Wall Street. Mr. Solovey’s outsize personality ultimately led to his dismissal from the show.

Senator Vance, who called Mr. Trump’s felony conviction “a disgrace to the rule of law and our Constitution,” would seem to be angling to fill the shoes of Mr. Trump’s favorite “Apprentice” winner, Bill Rancic. Mr. Rancic, a business owner who took the top prize in the first season, was always comfortable ceding the spotlight to Mr. Trump, serving as a yes-man and never betraying his boss. Mr. Rancic has never once publicly criticized Mr. Trump — a strategy that Mr. Trump’s V.P. wannabes have definitely picked up on.

Voters Deserve a Qualified VP Candidate

Of course, it’s an open question whether vice-presidential picks ultimately matter all that much. Teddy Roosevelt once called the job “not a steppingstone to anything except oblivion.” Still, the best No. 2s handle the office with dignity and offer powerful complementary legislative qualities to the president they serve. Whatever your politics, you can and should hope for more from a vice-presidential hopeful than simply being a good lackey. Voters deserve a qualified and capable candidate who’s ready to assume the second-highest office — and, potentially, the highest — in the land.

From Mr. Trump’s actions so far, it’s not clear he’s thinking about any of these important qualifications for his running mate. There’s a chance that whoever flatters him most effectively will get the position. For 14 seasons of “The Apprentice,” Mr. Trump shared the screen with several underlings, but the show was always all about him; even the winning contestants reliably became spokespeople for his brand.

He’s once again busy casting the nation’s biggest reality show. He just wants to make sure we all keep watching.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Ramin Setoodeh
c.2024 The New York Times Company
Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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