Gingrich and Trump Make Unlikely Duo
Newt Gingrich is a student and teacher of history, a former House speaker and onetime presidential candidate who is both a consummate Washington insider and a political rebel -- and yet, he is still in awe of Donald Trump.
Gingrich, who originally supported his longtime friend and former colleague John Kasich, watched his party’s primaries in fascination as the businessman with no traditional presidential credentials defied all political convention, and was particularly struck by how he could command the arena without paying for advertising. In an attempt to understand what he called “a phenomenon,” Gingrich spent part of his 2015 Christmas holidays reading Trump’s 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.”
In it, he found “stories of calculated risk-taking and stories of innovation and marketing,” he wrote in a January op-ed.
Gingrich wouldn’t officially endorse Trump until May, but he got the candidate’s attention by offering favorable analysis on cable news and in articles and interviews. Their relationship is roughly four years in the making. Trump sought Gingrich’s advice when he was considering running for president in 2012, and valued the respect the former House speaker showed him as other Republican figures laughed off his potential bid. That meeting hasn’t been lost on Trump.
He also promoted Trump’s book to colleagues and friends, including former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Walker, a close ally who chaired Gingrich’s presidential campaign in 2012 and also supported Kasich this cycle.
“He told me early on that you need to read ‘The Art of the Deal,’” Walker told RCP. “It’s been fascinating to him that despite things that would sink other politicians, Trump’s core support is people who say he’s somebody who is going to make things better. And I think Newt, based on his own study of history, thinks Trump may end up being a historic figure.”
It’s a history of which Gingrich, 73, hopes to be a part. The former Georgia lawmaker is in top contention to be Trump’s running mate, along with Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mike Pence of Indiana. While a Trump-Gingrich ticket has already garnered criticisms for being physically too old, too tied to the past, and marked by scandals and multiple marriages, it would fulfill the credentials that the presumptive nominee has outlined.
Trump has said he wants someone with the political experience to navigate Washington, who is loyal and with whom he has chemistry. Gingrich may not be the most compelling candidate in 2016, but he does fill in many of Trump’s gaps: he lives and breathes policy, has a political and donor network, knows how to prosecute a case against the Clintons (even if his attempt in the 1990s was seen as overreaching), and is articulate, curious, and, as he showed during a Facebook Live chat on race in light of the Dallas shooting last week, thoughtful.
“If he could take him as a peer and listen to him, Gingrich could be the one-man think tank missing on this campaign,” says Ed Rollins, a former Gingrich aide who is running Trump’s super PAC. “He knows the players and he knows the staff [on Capitol Hill], and this is a campaign that needs to get moving really quick here.”
Gingrich has developed a relationship with the current House speaker, for example, keeping in touch with Paul Ryan and his staff since the Wisconsin lawmaker took the position last year. They held a Facebook Live chat together in March to talk about GOP policy and what's at stake in the election.
At the same time, Gingrich sees parallels between himself and Trump. "They both led revolutions," says Rollins. "The good thing about Newt is no one knows more about substance and policy ... at this point in this campaign, it may be the perfect match."
Trump is expected to make his decision by the end of the week, before the party gathers for the convention in Cleveland. In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday, Trump said that no matter the analysis, running mates hardly ever help the ticket win. “Someone respected by the establishment and liked by the establishment would be good for unification,” he said. “I do like unification of the Republican Party.”
After being introduced by Gingrich at a campaign rally last week, Trump told the crowd, “I can tell you in one form or another, Newt Gingrich is going to be involved with our government.”
For his part, Gingrich told Fox News that he would be compelled to serve “if Trump offers the position and is serious about it, which I think he would be after our conversations.”
While vice presidential nominees don’t often significantly affect the outcome of the race, they are seen as the first major decision a presidential candidate makes. In Trump’s case, all eyes are watching, given the level of animosity many in his party have toward him.
“Conservatives seem to be instantly comforted when Gingrich is mentioned as a running mate,” says Rick Tyler, a former Ted Cruz aide and spokesman for Gingrich’s 2012 campaign.
“He is the last speaker who ushered a conservative legislative agenda through Congress and subsequently [was] signed by the president -- in his case a Democrat -- which included a balanced budget, increased defense spending, and his signature achievement -- welfare reform,” Tyler told RCP. “He did it by prosecuting a national campaign in which he gained enough public support for a mandate.”
Gingrich led House Republicans from a four-decade drought to the majority in 1994 after co-authoring the party’s “Contract with America,” a vision document seen as instrumental in that year’s midterm election. While Gingrich worked closely with then-President Clinton on key legislative priorities, he also led the impeachment charges against him and then acknowledged his own affair during those proceedings. Gingrich was also fined $300,000 for ethics violations in 1997. He stepped down as speaker in 1998 after the party suffered devastating midterm losses that year.
Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid revived his political career. He took heat from the rank and file, particularly for his criticisms of Ryan’s Medicare proposals. He was a harsh opponent of Mitt Romney, and his super PAC put forth a damning documentary calling the eventual GOP nominee a corporate raider.
Gingrich eventually endorsed Romney, but he has been critical of him for opposing Trump. While introducing Trump in Ohio last week, the former House speaker also chided Kasich, his friend and governor of the state, for his reluctance to endorse Trump.
Tyler said likening Gingrich’s skills to those of other Trump surrogates would be like comparing “Pavarotti and pop stars. There are a lot of people on TV singing Trump’s song, but you put Gingrich out there and he is so lucid, so clear. There's nobody -- it’s not even close.”
That style did not go unnoticed by Trump and his campaign.
“Newt was probably one of the earliest analysts out there to note the likelihood of the Trump nomination, and he was very early on expressing confidence in Trump’s ability to win,” says Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who chaired the New York state campaign. “That caught everybody's eye on the campaign, especially Mr. Trump.”
The campaign began to circulate clips of Gingrich’s analysis internally to staff via email. The Georgia lawmaker’s assessments and explanations of Trump were key in the campaign's recruitment of supporters, Caputo said. Gingrich has become unofficial adviser to the campaign and a fierce defender and promoter of the candidate in public arenas.
But unlike other Trump allies, including Christie, Gingrich also offered public criticisms, scolding the candidate over the Judge Gonzalo Curiel controversy. Trump struck back against Gingrich publicly, but he also took heed.
“When one of your strongest supporters is also strongly criticizing something going on at the moment, you can’t help but sit up and take note,” says Caputo.
While Gingrich has been a valuable adviser to Trump, his own brash personality is well- known and the candidate may feel that the former speaker has the propensity to upstage him. Gingrich’s knowledge and experience may also be a distraction, and prevent him from taking cues or advice from the candidate and the campaign. Plus, Gingrich’s public eagerness to join the ticket is off-putting to some.
“The trick to this, of course, is always to run and look like you're not running for vice president,” said a source with knowledge of Trump’s thought process surrounding the decision. “Gingrich has been a little too Machiavellian, pretending not to run while very actively promoting his candidacy. He may have overplayed his hand in that a little bit.”
While introducing the presumptive GOP nominee in Cincinnati last week -- an appearance seen as a vice presidential audition -- Gingrich continued his effusive praise of Trump and criticism of Clinton.
Gingrich noted his studies -- he has a doctorate in history -- and said he knew of no example in American history of a moment and a leader like Trump. “Donald Trump has been in politics now for slightly over 12 months. It’s unbelievable.”
It was high praise, according to Trump, who told the audience of Gingrich: "He says I'm the biggest thing he's ever seen in the history of politics.”