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VP Pence Could Be the Victim of a Trump Campaign Swap Out

An insecure president has become a vulnerable incumbent. There are indications he’s considering radical options.

Nikki Haley, VP Mike Pence (Photos by Gage Skidmore) and Rick Grenell (Getty Images)

“If you think about it — the most important moments in your life — were you alone?” Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s traveling termination officer, asks in Up in the Air— a film about the last recession. “Life’s better with company. Everyone needs a co-pilot.”

Whatever his ultimate preference, on this question, President Donald Trump doesn’t have a choice. Constitutionally, he must run with a lieutenant.

While the famous brandmaster has undoubtedly toyed with more egotistical arrangements —a Twitter account called “The Ticket” recently spat out “Donald Trump (R) / Donald Trump (R)” —the fact is his options are rather narrow.

The baseline scenario is inertia. Trump will keep his vice president—the staid former Indiana governor Mike Pence —who was a juggernaut in 2016, helping to corral both the evangelical and establishment Republican vote. Trump won power by breaking the mold, it’s true—but if the Moral Majority, or what remains, had fled their party en masse, he would not be president. That’s why Trump passed on edgier selections, like fellow socially moderate, tri-state tough guy Chris Christie or the eternally interesting Newt Gingrich (as a matter of fact, Trump actually tried to renege on Pence and go with Christie, but that’s another story).

Trump wouldn’t be the first President to consider ticket-switching between terms. In the modern era, it’s happened a few times—though not in a generation. 

Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, ran against his own vice president (and secretary of state!) at the 1940 convention. During the so-called “whisper campaign,” he had no problem dispensing with his vice-president of eight years, John Nance Garner, replacing him with Henry Wallace. And four years later, as his health flagged and the war wound down, the incumbent president again chucked his deputy for the familiar Harry Truman (a decision helped, no doubt, by Wallace’s talent for attracting suspicions of Soviet sympathies).

In the early sixties, John F. Kennedy thought about throwing Lyndon Baines Johnson overboard—a fact that has been fodder for conspiracy theories in recent years. And in the mid-seventies, the unelected president—Gerald Ford—swapped out Nelson Rockefeller for Bob Dole, then considered a hardliner (though looks can be deceiving; in his later years, “Moderate Bob” would be dogged by criticism from his party’s right wing). The notorious “Halloween Massacre” — which also facilitated the ascensions of up-and-coming GOP politicians named Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—was the last time a sitting president has changed horses.

But others have thought about it. It shocks people to hear it, but George W. Bush gave thought to losing Dick Cheney—-considered by many Americans to be the de facto president for much of the early 2000s. In his memoir, Bush wrote he felt the need to “demonstrate that I was in charge,” and weighed plucking Republican leader Bill Frist from the Senate (let us hope that someone, somewhere is writing President Bill Frist fan fiction…).

And Barack Obama toyed with the unthinkable—for anyone who watched the 2008 election, anyway. Unlike the electorate, President Obama actually likes Hillary Clinton—his old rival. Eight long years ago, scheming apparatchiks to the forty-fourth president reviewed the possibility of putting Joe Biden out to pasture. The machinations would foreshadow Obama’s successful effort four years later to sideline Biden in favor of Clinton for the Democratic nomination. 

The Obama-Biden duo are an iconic political couple in the American imagination. Don’t believe it: this past primary represents the third consecutive election cycle in which Obama has knifed his old partner. In the aftermath of the shocking 2016 contest, Obama toldThe New Yorker’s David Remnick that the party’s future lay with fresher blood: incoming California senator Kamala Harris, or perhaps an obscure Indiana mayor named Pete Buttigieg, or even the somnolent Tim Kaine—Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Really, anybody but Biden. But in 2020—as Biden leads essentially all relevant polls and has Trump sweating —a few people are reassessing if that Barack Obama guy knew what he was talking about. 

Indeed, these days the temperature in the White House, and at Trump’s campaign headquarters across the Potomac, is downright sweltering. And being a senior Trump staffer is a little like being an officer in Stalin’s Red Army during the thirties: not exactly a place to put down roots (recall that Trump sacked his pollsters this time last year, after internal data showed him losing badly to Joe Biden). Many believe the coronavirus is responsible for Trump’s dimming prospects. But a year later, the cleanup crew is reporting the same bad news from the front as last year, before the contagion: Biden is ahead. It’s probably a good thing Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has been able to save money on beard trims in recent months.  

If it’s bad to be Brad, it may be worse to be Mike, as Trump routinely, publicly refers to the sitting vice president of the United States. Like Obama and Biden, the relationship between Trump and Pence is not overtly hostile–indeed, at times it looks like a genuine partnership. But expediency is not the stuff of perfect marriages. Pence was made head of the presidential Coronavirus Task Force: you don’t need to be Machiavelli to spot a poison chalice. Trump could make like Clooney’s Bingham character—adapted from a perfect Walter Kirn novel—who relieves people of their jobs for a living. America remembers a celebrity who got famous for saying that kind of thing. In a presidential term that’s already seen some of the most cyclonic personnel changes in American political history, it would be a fitting coup de grace. It’d be vintage Trump: a ticket switch. 

Should the axe fall for Pence, there are two main contenders for his spot.

The first is the most rumored-about: former U.N. ambassador and neoconservative favorite Nikki Haley. After a tour of duty at Turtle Bay last decade, she’s the establishment front-runner to succeed Trump in 2024. By joining Trump, she could cut out the middleman. She’d be seen as a boost to Trump’s flagging support in the suburbs, especially among women. And if Trump wins, she’d have a clearer path to the presidency. As Biden reminded us this cycle, no sitting or former vice president in memory who has sought his party’s nomination has failed to capture it: Hubert Humphrey was nominated in 1968, as were Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000.

But should she be offered it, Haley might not accept. She has been critical of the administration’s fulsome economic response to the Corona crisis, and while she has never criticized Trump publicly since being in his employ —indeed, she wrote a memoir more obsequious to the man personally than many expected—it’s clear she has her own brand of Republican politics. She is comfortable at the American Enterprise Institute; she owes her national prominence to the Tea Party milieu. The hawkish diplomat may want a return to normalcy, as she sees it — probity at home and leadership abroad. 

This brings us to the darkhorse. Few men have risen more swiftly and fanatically under President Trump than Richard “Ric” Grenell, a flashy communications hand turned diplomat, spymaster, and like his boss, Twitter pugilist. He moves in an exclusive clique led by the president’s son, Donald Jr., and is among the most celebrated figures in MAGAland. Like Haley, Grenell was a critic of Trump back in the day. But that’s ancient history now: at least in the president’s inner sanctum. As of this week, Grenell is out as acting Director of National Intelligence—as well as Trump’s man in Berlin. 

A Politico piece this week by Natasha Bertrand alleging Grenell would be front-and-center in the President’s re-election campaign was ferociously denied by the right-wing as well as by Grenell himself. Grenell says he is not joining Trump’s campaign. I should note the report said he would join up… as a staffer. It’s telling, however, that Grenell never fully ruled out joining the campaign at any point. Perhaps Betrand’s reporting that Grenell will take a “senior role inside the Trump campaign” will end up looking euphemistic.

Grenell’s name has been whispered since before the present crisis. The administration, with a new personnel chief, has been undergoing convulsions as of late. For those in Trump’s orbit desperate to portray the Republican Party as more modern, Grenell would be manna from heaven.

It’s also worth noting that perhaps the most influential couple in the administration, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, were longtime Democrats prior to their family’s storming of Washington. “I am a proud Trump Republican,” Ivanka Trump told theNew York Timesearlier this year. “I believe he’s broadened the reach of the Republican Party, which is really important to me.” Her partner has expressed similar sentiments. 

Grenell is the first openly gay individual to have served at a United States Cabinet level position. There have been flashes of this kind of stuff before. Tech mogul Peter Thiel’s address to the Republican National Convention in 2016—like Grenell’s hiring, the first ever of its kind—was heavy on his story as a proud, gay American entrepreneur, and Republican. 

Kushner, the true architect of Trump’s re-election effort,  wants to expand the map and broaden the party’s demographic appeal, particularly among African Americans. Veteran politicos may scoff, but the Trumps think they smell blood with Biden, especially with his recent gaffe insinuating an entire race owed unconditional fealty to the Democratic Party. 

And after delivering two Supreme Court justices and a generation of conservatives to the lower courts, the thinking goes that Trump could count on the loyalty of Evangelical Christians, even without their champion Pence on the ballot. He could be publicly promised another job and besides, it’d be a reprise of a famous truism from the nineties. They’ve “got nowhere else to go,” triangulating Clinton Democrats would say of union members. 

Grenell has also distinguished himself as an uncompromising opponent of that most fearsome of Trump-era bogeymen: the Deep State. Trump has a number of ways he could retain power, but he appears to favor one above all else: conspiracy. Though his family may have their eyes on the future, Trump’s recent fixation on “Obamagate” and attempts to reopen a cold case on MSNBC’sJoe Scarborough show the man in the Oval Office enjoys living in the past.

The crowning of either Haley or Grenell would be unwelcome news for those favoring foreign policy realism and restraint. Though Pence has been no peacenik, both Haley and Grenell are inveterate hawks, consistent with their pedigrees as skeptics of Trump’s 2016 primary run. But it’d be consistent with the strange choice of song Trump always plays at his campaign rallies.

You can’t always get what you want.

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the 2020 campaign and the Trump presidency. Previously, he reported for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, U.S. News & World Report and the Spectator. Mills was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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