How Pence’s Camp Persuaded Trump to Pick Their Guy as VP

It was July 14, 2016, just four days before the Republican National Convention, and Donald Trump was still waffling on who to pick as his running mate. He had just told Indiana Gov. Mike Pence he was his pick, but then, a day later, here he was calling up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Story…

It was July 14, 2016, just four days before the Republican National Convention, and Donald Trump was still waffling on who to pick as his running mate.

He had just told Indiana Gov. Mike Pence he was his pick, but then, a day later, here he was calling up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

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“Are you ready?” he asked, as Christie recalled. “I want to know that you’re ready and that Mary Pat is ready.”

“If you want me to do this, we’re going to be ready,” Christie told him.

“Stay by the phone tomorrow, because I’m making this call tomorrow,” Trump said.

And what about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich? Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump liked Gingrich because he meshed well with Trump, performed well on TV and was a big thinker in a way Trump wasn’t. But Trump had told an adviser that Gingrich’s vetting packet was terrifying. The dirt Trump’s people had dug up on Gingrich “makes mine look tame,” Trump told the adviser.

The previous Saturday, Trump had told a roomful of donors he liked Christie for vice president. That Tuesday, he told Pence’s good friend and Indiana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Cardwell that the choice was down to Pence and Gingrich. And just the previous day, July 13, he’d called Pence and told him he was it.

Hearing that timeline, a former Trump aide laughed. “He tells everybody yes.”

How did Trump decide on Pence? A flat tire, some Hoosier hospitality, lots of prayers and Pence’s striking indifference—with which the Indiana governor impressed Trump in a meeting at the Governor’s Mansion—had gotten the Indiana governor to the brink of history. But it was a previously unreported threat from Pence’s political brain trust that would land him on the ticket and ultimately lift Trump over the finish line months later, changing the course of history.

***

Before a mid-July meeting that changed everything, Trump didn’t particularly like Pence. To Trump, he carried the whiff of a loser. Here was a man who should be coasting to reelection in a solid Republican state but instead was bailing out water in a rematch with the Democrat, John Gregg, who had almost beat him just four years earlier. Pence’s team said their polling was strong and had improved greatly since last year’s “religious freedom” disaster. But Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio saw something beyond Pence’s job prospects; Pence was the only candidate he’d run the numbers on who helped lift Trump with evangelical voters and conservatives. Pence felt a lot like the medicine Trump didn’t want to choke down.

Campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus both had been pushing hard for Pence—each for his own reasons. Manafort saw an immediate crisis at the nominating convention in Cleveland: Delegates could deny Trump the nomination if the uprising spurred by Ted Cruz and other movement conservatives—the kinds more likely to warm to Pence—carried through. And Priebus saw another problem: Republicans could lose even more seats down the ballot with Trump at the top of the ticket if evangelical Christians and stalwart conservatives stayed home rather than vote for either Hillary Clinton or Trump.

Longtime Trump friend and former insurance magnate Steve Hilbert also pushed hard for Pence behind the scenes as the race picked up over the summer of 2016. Trump came to him regularly with questions about Pence, and Hilbert assured him he would be a good selection. When Trump asked whether Pence could raise enough money for the ticket, Hilbert went to Pence campaign manager Marty Obst, who worked up a quick memo of their fundraising efforts for the Republican Governors Association.

While Obst and his fellow aide Nick Ayers worked the phones on Pence’s behalf, in the great shadow campaign for running mate, Pence laid back and didn’t lobby directly. “Running” for running mate had always been a passive-aggressive exercise in wanting it while looking like you don’t want it. But Pence seemed awkwardly placid, even to his aides. Obst asked him how he could be so calm, and Pence said it was because “God has a plan.” Whatever God’s answer was, Pence would be OK with it.

The decision would have to be made soon. The nominating convention in Cleveland started July 18 and the running mate was set to be nominated Wednesday, July 20, 2016. And Pence had his own deadline: If Trump were serious, he would have to make it clear before noon on July 15, because that was when Pence would have to pull his name off the ballot for governor if he were picked as Trump’s vice presidential running mate.

With the leaders of the establishment on his side, and no connections to Trumpworld, Pence was at the bottom of the small list of finalists—but he was still in the mix.

Trump was scheduled to do a fundraiser in Indianapolis on Tuesday, July 12. Hilbert had helped set it up months earlier with the heads of Trump’s campaign in Indiana, former GOP chairman Rex Early and veteran Republican operative Tony Samuel, long before Pence was seriously considered a running mate. Happenstance seemed to smile on the Indiana governor.

Trump Force One, as it was known on the trail, was about as Trumpy as it got: The plane was a massive Boeing 757, which he’d bought for $100 million five years earlier when he was considering a run for president in 2012. It included a bedroom, guest room, galley, shower and gold-plated fixtures throughout. But, like much of Trump’s empire, there was quite a bit of wear underneath the gold plating. The plane was built in 1991 and ran as a commercial airliner for a few years before going into private use.

When it landed at a private airfield just outside Indianapolis that Tuesday afternoon, it popped a flat tire on the landing gear on the right side of the plane. Trump’s Secret Service detail scrambled to figure out what to do. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign team rushed to downtown Indianapolis because it was already late for the fundraiser. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks, bodyguard Keith Schiller and personal assistant John McEntee rode in the car with a former aide to Early, Kevin Eck. Eck could hear Hicks in the back setting up meetings for Trump in California the next day. Trump planned to spend July 12 in Indianapolis, do a fundraiser and rally with Pence and then fly on to California for another fundraising event.

About 25 high-dollar donors from Indiana showed up to the fundraiser late that afternoon at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis. After brief remarks from Trump and Pence, they set up for photos with Trump inside the Crystal Terrace, a large, elegant ballroom with sweeping views of downtown.

When Pence’s friend Cardwell got to the front of the photo line, he introduced himself to Trump. “I understand you’ve known Mike a long time,” Trump said, according to Cardwell. Cardwell nodded. They chatted a bit about Pence’s qualifications, then Trump pulled him aside.

“I want to talk to you more about this,” he said, as Cardwell recalled. “Listen, it’s down to two people: I’m looking at Newt Gingrich or Mike Pence.” He wanted to know why Pence should be picked.

“I don’t think you need another lightning rod at the top of the ticket,” Cardwell said, echoing the argument Priebus and Manafort had been making for months. “Mike Pence will deliver the evangelical vote, he will deliver the Rust Belt. And because he is a member of the Republican Governors Association, he’s got good relationships with all the surrounding governors, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.” The Rust Belt twist helped because the Trump campaign long knew it would have to sweep the region to win the White House.

The Secret Service agents assigned to Trump motioned for him to get moving, but Trump waved them off. Then Cardwell, a small-business owner for decades, remembered that he was talking with a businessman, so he made a finer point, which played to Trump’s ego and inclinations: “The two of you would be the best public-private partnership in history.” Trump smiled and asked for Cardwell’s cellphone number.

Trump’s team ran out the back of the Columbia Club to the alley where his motorcade was waiting to take him just north of the city to a rally in Westfield, Indiana. Eck sat in the car, idling, when Hicks, Schiller and the rest of the team jumped in.

Eck noticed the cool, collected chaos of the typical campaign style had been replaced with franticness. Hicks hopped between texting and phone calls, canceling every California meeting she could. The flat tire on Trump Force One would take a long time to fix. The brake on the right-side landing gear had broken and caused the tire to pop. They could fly up the replacement brake from Florida immediately, but that would cost $30,000, and Trump didn’t want to spend that much. So he had a campaign aide drive the part from Florida to Indiana.

Some aides saw God’s hand at work. Others saw Manafort’s. Regardless of the reason, Trump was stuck in Indianapolis overnight.

***

One more night in Indianapolis would prove quite fortuitous for Pence. “The Trump family had pretty much made up their mind; they were getting ready for the next week, the convention,” Cardwell said. “The family was all on board with Newt.”

That night, Mike and Karen Pence dined with Trump and his son Eric at the Capital Grille, a fancy steakhouse at The Conrad, the five-star hotel where the Trumps were staying.

Trump was gregarious. “You’ve really got a lot of muscle around here. Everybody has these good things to say about you,” he told Pence, according to Obst.

Pence had been scheduled to fly to New York the next day to meet with Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., a formality as part of the VP vetting process. But Trump and Pence decided at dinner to have the Trump family fly into Indianapolis first thing in the morning for a family breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion.

That night gave Pence the “home court advantage,” Obst said. “If you think about Mike walking into Trump Tower with all the gold and going up to the residence, it’s really disorienting — and then sitting in this bizarre chair, having everybody fire questions at him. The interaction would have been very different.”

Pence walked out of the dinner after a few hours with a giant smile on his face. Cardwell, who was waiting outside the private dining room so he could hear about the meeting afterward, couldn’t believe what was happening. “That’s the night a flat tire changed the course of American history.”

Mike and Karen Pence spent the night picking flowers for the breakfast in the backyard, using the light of their iPhones.

Eck got up early to drive out to the private airfield and pick up Trump’s children from the airport—Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. One Trump aide said Jared and Ivanka flew to Indianapolis to meet Pence as a part of doing their due diligence in vetting running mates. Christie saw their trip as a last-ditch effort to block him from becoming Trump’s running mate, a product of Kushner’s long-standing hostility against Christie for sending his father to jail years ago.

Early that morning, Karen drove to a boutique grocery to pick up breakfast. It seemed so fitting that this played out on their home turf, in the neighborhood she grew up in—Broad Ripple, near Butler University. This was the same neighborhood where she and Mike first met at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, where Karen was playing guitar. This was the same neighborhood where they lived together after they were married and where Mike launched his political career in 1986.

Karen served breakfast for the Trumps and her husband’s small team at the Governor’s Mansion. After the meal, Donald Trump and Mike Pence sat down with a small group in the “bunker”—the furnished basement of the mansion. They got down to brass tacks, in a previously unreported meeting.

Trump looked at Pence and held up his cellphone. He had several missed calls from Christie. “I need killers. I want somebody to fight,” Trump said in a conversation recalled by Obst. “Chris Christie calls me nonstop about this job. He calls me every 10 seconds; he’d do anything for his job. He is dying to be vice president. And you, it’s like you don’t care.” He reiterated: “I need killers! Do you want this thing or not?”

Pence was calm, unnaturally calm. Obst knew why: He was resigned to whatever answer God would give. Pence could only be himself.

“Look, Donald, if you want somebody to be a killer, if you want somebody to be a constant attack dog, I suggest you go find someone else. I’m not that guy.”Pence told Trump he liked running for reelection. He told him he was the guy if Trump wanted someone who could help him run the White House, help get bills passed and build and maintain relationships with donors, officials and governors.

“So, if you want me to do it, I’m going to say, ‘Yes.’ If you don’t want me to do it, I’m going to work really hard for you and the other guy. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter,” he said, according to Obst.

“Well, then why are you going through this process?” Trump asked, perplexed by Pence’s dismissive answer.

“Well, you’re in my home, you tell me,” Pence said. “Your whole family came here to see me. Obviously, the feeling is mutual, right?”

All Trump could say was: “Wow.” He seemed genuinely surprised that a man he had thought of as a loser—a man who also wanted something from him—appeared so nonchalant.

After Trump and his family left, Obst looked over at Pence. “What was that? That was awesome!”

Pence smiled.

Trump hopped back in his motorcade to have lunch with Gingrich at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis. Sean Hannity, an unabashed Gingrich supporter, had flown Gingrich into Indianapolis at the last minute, sensing the coveted spot on the ticket was slipping away from Gingrich. But Gingrich was stuck waiting as Pence held court. Hannity’s instincts were dead-on: In 24 hours, Gingrich had fallen from the pick to the bottom of the pack. The man who trained generations of Republicans and set the angry tone of Trumpism with his campaign school and instructional cassette tapes was trumped by a flat tire and masterful political timing by Pence.

Meanwhile, Eck drove Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump back to the plane to leave. Eric Trump rode shotgun. Christie had been calling their father for hours, and it wasn’t fair to just leave him hanging. Eric asked Ivanka if they should call him, and she answered that it was a good idea. Eric got on the phone with Christie and assured him no decisions had been made yet. “Our families have been good friends for years,” Eric told him. “We wouldn’t make a decision without telling you.” He hung up after a few minutes. “That was good,” Ivanka said, according to Eck.

Trump Force One still sat on the tarmac, unmoved from the day before. It would be a while before the flat was fixed. But the Secret Service had arranged for an auxiliary plane to fly Trump from another airfield nearby on the west end of the city.

That evening, Mike and Karen Pence gathered together with their central team, chief of staff Jim Atterholt, Obst and Ayers, at the guest house next to the Governor’s Mansion. The small house formed a de facto campaign headquarters, for only the innermost of Pence’s circle. They talked out logistics, and there were plenty of logistics to consider—they needed to know before noon on Friday whether Trump was picking Pence.

They tried to stay focused on the race for governor, but it was hard. Trump was mercurial indeed, and an excellent encounter could be wiped away with another flat tire or impressive showing by Christie or anyone else. Nothing could be truly cemented until one week from then, in Cleveland, when the Republican delegates approved Trump’s anointed running mate.

As they were debating their next steps, Ayers received a call from the Trump campaign: Pence should get ready for a call from Trump in 30 minutes. They did not know what was coming, but they had a feeling. As they grabbed one another’s hands in a circle, Pence asked Atterholt to lead them in a prayer. Atterholt, a devout evangelical like Mike and Karen, chose a “hedge of protection” prayer. “I prayed to put a hedge of protection around Mike and his family. I prayed for peace and wisdom and for God to protect his family,” he recalled. Atterholt, Ayers and Obst then left—and Mike and Karen ran inside to the study to take the most important call of their lives.

Later that night, Trump called and told Pence he was the VP pick.

***

The Pence family woke up on Thursday, July 14 after the phone call believing that they had the nod from Trump locked up. They called in Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb to tell him the news and that they would support him in his bid to replace Pence on the ballot for governor. They would fly to New York for an announcement at Trump Tower that evening.

Mike, Karen and Charlotte, their middle child, ducked into an SUV to ride to the airport. They hid in the back, heads down, so the television cameras assembled across the street wouldn’t spy them. Before leaving, they sent a decoy, Mike Pence’s older brother Greg, chauffeured in a black SUV just like the governor’s. The journalists ran after him. Greg Pence waved and smiled. They also had a decoy plane ready—the private jet owned by Pence’s younger brother, Tom, was set for takeoff to New York. Pence flew on the private plane of one of his closest advisers and fundraisers, Fred Klipsch.

They’d fooled the press, but they didn’t fool Christie. One of Christie’s state troopers told him a private flight was coming in from Indianapolis and landing at Teterboro, New Jersey. Christie said he called Trump and chewed him out.

“You picked Pence?”

Trump hated confrontation, so he played it down. “Nothing is final, Chris,” he said.

Christie leveled with him. “I will do this for you, Donald, but I don’t need this,” he said.

But Trump assured him he was still in. “Chris, Chris, just be ready. Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?”

“Ready, I need you to be ready for this.”

“Mary Pat and I are ready, just tell us when.”

News reports emerged that Pence was the running mate pick. The Indianapolis Star reported shortly after noon that Trump had settled on the Indiana governor. Pence and his family huddled at Trump Tower, waiting for the big rollout.

Then CNN reported that not long after Trump made his verbal commitment to Pence, he was already asking aides if it were too late to back out of the decision. The announcement was supposed to be made on Thursday, but the Trump campaign delayed. Trump said this was in deference to the terrorist attack in Nice, France, that had killed 86 people. This rang odd, since global events rarely seemed to have any effect on Trump.

A few hours later, Trump called in to Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox News Channel to talk about the terrorist attack and the running mate process. “I haven’t made my final, final decision,” he said. “I’ve got three people that are fantastic. I think Newt is a fantastic person. I think Chris Christie is a fantastic person.”

Ayers and Obst smelled trouble. They knew how Trump worked—he could change his mind a thousand times more between now and the convention and nothing would be locked in until the Republican delegates voted on a running mate. Ayers and Obst weren’t about to have Pence and his family go through this only to have the football yanked at the last minute. They knew they had to lock Trump in. And the clock ticked for them, but not for Trump.

Manafort told them Trump wouldn’t announce Pence as his pick until Saturday, which would be one day after Pence had to remove his name from the ticket for governor. If Trump changed his mind and went with Christie or someone else, Pence wouldn’t be running for governor or vice president. He’d be out of a job.

Obst said he and Ayers yelled at Manafort: If Trump wouldn’t make the announcement publicly before noon Friday, the deadline for Pence to decide if he would stay on the ticket for governor, they were going with their backup plan and Pence was running for governor.

Trump called Obst and Ayers at 1 a.m., after a fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Calif. “Guys, I told you not to worry about it,” he said, according to Obst.

But they were worried. They were freaking out.

The morning of Friday, July 15, 2016, one of Pence’s deputies stood ready to deliver the papers to the Indiana secretary of state’s office that would remove Pence’s name from the ballot for governor and legally allow him to run for vice president. They had until noon.

Trump called up Obst and Ayers. “Guys, what do you need me to do?” he asked.

Obst and Ayers repeated their threat: Make the announcement publicly now or they were backing out. It was a stunning request from the would-be running mate, leveraging the man at the top of the Republican ticket. Pence’s modesty and the miracle flat tire—both of these appeared to give Pence the edge in Trump’s selection. But with a famously indecisive nominee, the importance of Obst and Ayers’ last-minute push is hard to overstate.

Trump asked if a tweet would do it. “Yes!” they screamed.

After the phone call, with just an hour left before the deadline struck on Pence’s future, Trump tweeted: “I am pleased to announce that I have chosen Governor Mike Pence as my Vice Presidential running mate. News conference tomorrow at 11 a.m.”

And then the campaign revealed the new logo, the intermingling of Trump and Pence—literally. The “T” looked like it was penetrating the “P” in a suggestive manner. The internet devoured the blunder and the logo was turned into a GIF, the T repeatedly bobbing up and down through the hole in the P. Brad Parscale, the campaign’s digital director, eventually took responsibility for the error and the logo was quickly scrapped. “What is the T doing to that P?” asked John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who, at 90, seemed to understand trolling better than any other person in Congress.

But at least Pence knew what he was doing.

On Saturday, July 16, 2016, Donald Trump walked onstage with Mike Pence. Pence opened by thanking God, then Karen and his kids, and then Trump.

“I come to this moment deeply humbled and with a grateful heart,” he said.

From the forthcoming book PIETY & POWER: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House by Tom LoBianco. Copyright © 2019 by Tom LoBianco. To be published on September 24, 2019 by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.

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