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From running mate to chief of staff, here’s who could be in a Trump administration in 2025

Trump needs to pick a running mate who can appeal beyond his most devoted fans – while also staffing an administration filled with his acolytes, Eric Garcia and Holly Baxter report

Tuesday 27 February 2024 14:15 GMT
Donald Trump’s choice of vice-president will explain to the voting public what we can expect from a future administration
Donald Trump’s choice of vice-president will explain to the voting public what we can expect from a future administration (Reuters)

Nothing has captured the current political imagination more than the Trump veepstakes.

Given that Donald Trump is all but guaranteed to be the nominee, the choice to be his vice-president will explain to the voting public what we can expect from a future administration. And this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) offered the perfect exhibition match for would-be administration officials.

Jeffrey Lord, a political strategist who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations, told The Independent at CPAC that Trump is most likely to pick either a female running mate or Tim Scott, the sole Black Republican senator who endorsed him last month.

“I do think it’ll either be Tim Scott or a woman, except not Nikki Haley,” he said. Indeed, CPAC’s straw poll showed that only 2 per cent of attendees at the gathering, which took place just outside Washington, wanted Haley to be Trump’s running mate. The straw poll, run by Trump pollster Jim McLaughlin, also showed that South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and businessman and former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy tied at 15 per cent each.

Lord also said it is important to throw off people’s expectations when it comes to the identity of the running mate. In other words, it would probably benefit Trump not to run alongside a straight white man this time. Lord noted that when he worked in George HW Bush’s administration, the White House nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Trump picking a Black or female running mate would confuse the competition and deflect criticism.

“Because what they mean is, Black is liberal. And you can apply that also to women, Latinos, and in this day and age, gays,” said Lord, describing how he believes the liberal media sees it. “So, if Trump goes for Tim Scott, they’ll go after Tim Scott. If he nominates Kristi Noem, they’ll go after her. That’s the way this game works.” In other words, Democrats and the more progressive sections of the media will jump to criticise a so-called “self-hating” woman or minority, absorbing some of the criticism that otherwise might have gone to Trump.

During the conference, Ramaswamy, Noem, New York Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik, and Ohio senator JD Vance all spoke. It was clear that each speech was actually an audition.

Stefanik – who began her career as a moderate who voted against the Trump tax cuts before shifting rightward – attempted to exhibit her Maga bona fides by noting how her questioning of university presidents on antisemitism was the most watched video of any congressional hearing this year. She also noted how she flipped a district red that had previously voted for Barack Obama.

Noem, for her part, leaned into her gender and noted how she had faced opposition for being a woman when she ran for governor. She showed herself as a tough-talking rancher when she said that Joe Biden and his vice-president Kamala Harris “suck”.

Meanwhile, Vance opted for a sit-down interview about his opposition to aiding Ukraine.

Republican representative for New York Elise Stefanik delivers a speech during CPAC 2024 (EPA)

In 2016, Trump picked Indiana governor Mike Pence, a strident evangelical conservative who opposed abortion. Trump’s choice of the mild-mannered midwesterner with sterling right-wing credentials – a man who called himself “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order” – gave the thrice-married former casino owner cachet with the religious right.

But Trump and Pence experienced an incredibly public divorce that culminated with Pence refusing to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, and Trump’s supporters chanting for Pence to be lynched, on 6 January 2021.

Since then, Trump has altered the Republican electorate. While he has gained support among non-college-educated voters in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as among non-college-educated Latino voters in places like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Miami, Florida, he has lost other places. Voters in the suburbs of cities like Atlanta and Phoenix led to Georgia and Arizona voting Democrat for the first time in decades.

Hogan Gidley, who served as the White House deputy press secretary during Trump’s first term, said that Trump needs someone who is sufficiently supportive of him.

“I think the person should be definitively Maga,” he told The Independent. But he also acknowledged that Trump would need to win suburban voters over: “I think the person should be able to go into suburbia and have conversations with people about the agenda, about Donald Trump personally, about Donald Trump professionally – and showcase exactly why he was successful, and how much those policies really did make their lives better.”

Towards the end of CPAC, Steve Bannon was gleeful about the fact that the straw poll showed Noem, Ramaswamy, Tulsi Gabbard, Byron Donalds, and Kari Lake as attendees’ top picks for Trump’s running mate.

“I want the media to suck on this right here,” he said. “You smear these good people, these hardworking people, right? They come here of their own free will and they’re free men and women. And they just voted for who they think should ride shotgun in the hardest election over the next nine months, and who they pick is a folks of colour or women. Top eight, right? Show me the racism in there. Show me the sexism in there.”

But picking a running mate is only a preview of what Trump would do as president. If he were to win, he would need to staff his administration with loyalists – something that’s gotten harder since he fell out with a lot of his picks the first time round.

John Bolton, who served as national security adviser during Trump’s presidency, noted how much of Trump’s messaging concerns his legal troubles. He has leant into mentioning his legal battles, while at the same time implying that his supporters will also be legally pursued simply for believing in the Maga dream. If he can fire up his base in that manner, then perhaps he can use his presidential powers to his own legal advantage, Bolton implied.

“He wants retribution about it,” Bolton told The Independent. “And to achieve that, if he’s re-elected, he would have to use the justice department or maybe the defence department, and that would raise really serious constitutional and political questions about what his authority is, and what sort of retribution he could take against American citizens.”

Devotees of Trump such as Bannon hope for Mike Davis – who has said that “activist” prosecutors have used the legal system for political gain against Trump – to serve as attorney general in a future administration. When he spoke at a recording of Bannon’s War Room show, Davis said what the criteria would be to staff a Trump presidency.

“You need two things to be a political appointee of a president,” he said. “You need to be both competent and you have to be loyal. You have to be both, you can’t be one or the other.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introduces his newly selected vice-presidential running mate Mike Pence, governor of Indiana, on 16 July 2016 (Getty)

During another recording of War Room, Johnny McEntee, who serves as a senior adviser to the ultra-conservative Project 2025, talked about staffing a newly Republican administration after the election.

“We’re going to hit the ground running in January of 2025, with thousands of patriots to take back the country,” he told Bannon on the show on Friday.

Anthony Scaramucci, the erstwhile White House communications director for the Trump administration who was summarily fired after 11 days, expressed his concern about McEntee’s plans and feared he could be a chief of staff in a future Trump administration.

“Johnny is a Trump acolyte. You know, he believes in the Maga philosophy,” Scaramucci told The Independent.

Scaramucci added that during Trump’s first term, those who were not acolytes tended to be the more competent figures, and to fall out with the Trump administration – those such as Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive who served as his economic adviser; John Kelly, a retired four-star general in the US Marines who served as his homeland security secretary and second chief of staff; James Mattis, another retired US Marines general who served as defence secretary; and Rex Tillerson, a former chief executive at ExxonMobil, as secretary of state.

“I don’t think you're going to be able to find anybody that hasn’t had a clash with Donald Trump,” Scaramucci said. “That means he’s either going to go to fringe people [for his administration], which is very possible. Or he’s going to have to bring in some people that he’s at odds with.”

Gidley, the Trump loyalist, put it another way. Too much of the government is structured to allow people who do not support the president to hang around, including people who have “their own axe to grind”, he said, adding: “I think it’s vital to have [a president] who can pick their own team, can pick their own field generals.”

But herein lies the contradiction: for Trump to win, he would need people who appeal beyond his most devoted fans, who will inevitably work to sabotage any outsiders.

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