With Gov. Ron DeSantis’ entrance into the 2024 presidential race, the GOP primary battle is finally—truly—underway. And yet Trump and his allies already seem more interested in another race: the veepstakes.
While Trump was previously fixated on picking a woman for his VP candidate, a little-known congressman from Florida has apparently caught the former president’s eye.
The chatter started the night of Trump’s CNN town hall, when second-term Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) sat in on the network’s post-game coverage. Donalds wasn’t just overly effusive of Trump’s performance; he skillfully chastised CNN and the town hall moderator, Kaitlan Collins, for repeatedly interrupting the former president.
“Kaitlan spent more time interjecting her own viewpoints or her own views on the situation,” Donalds claimed, further triggering the CNN panelists when he seemed to argue that Trump was entitled to speak freely without being fact-checked.
Donalds fought back sharply, arguing that town halls are for voters, not for journalists. And he claimed that normal people wanted to talk about issues like the border, inflation, and foreign policy, not Jan. 6 or whether the 2020 election was fair. For his efforts, Donalds was rewarded with pro-MAGA media going so far as to claim Donalds had dropped an “atomic sledgehammer of truth” on CNN.
Donalds, one of four Black Republicans in the House, looks more like he belongs on a cable news set than in a Freedom Caucus meeting, yet he seems quite comfortable in both settings. He is a former financial adviser who got involved in politics around the tea party’s rise in 2009, becoming a state representative in 2016 and a congressman three days before Jan. 6, 2021.
So when Donalds defended Trump on CNN’s airwaves, Trump took notice.
Following his contentious appearance on CNN—which immediately went viral in the MAGA Twitterverse—the former president called him up and thanked Donalds for defending him. That conversation has now become a point of fascination for some Trump allies and GOP congressmen.
One Trump adviser noted it made sense that Donalds would catch Trump’s attention; television is, after all, a primary test of viability for the former president.
“Once someone gets TV time, this happens,” the Trump adviser, who has spoken about vice presidential picks with the former president, told The Daily Beast. “Byron is incredible.”
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN), who called Donalds an “excellent legislator” who is “young enough” to do the job in an interview with The Daily Beast, tweeted his praise of the vice president idea on Wednesday.
When The Daily Beast asked Burchett where that tweet had originated from, the Tennessee Republican said it came from “the heart.”
“Byron is a dear friend, and he is the American dream,” Burchett said. “He came up with nothing and had a good mama.”
(Burchett then joked, in characteristic form, that Donalds was “lackluster on the baseball field” compared to himself.)
Regardless of Donalds’ skills on the diamond—or lack thereof—Donalds acknowledged that he had a conversation with Trump after the CNN appearance.
“He called me. He was like, you know, he just said, ‘You were awesome. And just thank you for just standing strong in there,’” Donalds said.
He continued that he told Trump it was “easy to tell the truth,” and he reported that having his name tossed around in VP conversations was surreal.
“I’m not trying to down talk it, but at the same time, being a kid from the inner city, to having a career, to being a husband, being a father, now a member of Congress,” he said. “Woah.”
Donalds questioned how real the chatter was, but also suggested he wasn’t really spending much time thinking about it.
“I haven’t given much thought to it. Just focused on my job. I can’t even really process that one,” he told The Daily Beast.
Exactly how real all the chatter is remains a bit of a question in Trumpworld. Some aides and Trumpworld fixtures told The Daily Beast that Trump really wasn’t at that stage, while others reported they had discussed the VP race with Trump and other people in his orbit.
While one adviser dismissed the speculation, they were emphatic that those discussions were at least realer than Trump’s concern about the newest entrant into the presidential primary.
“There is no concern about DeSantis. The polls are indicative of that,” this person said Thursday. “DeSantis just self imploded on Twitter last night. He scrapped his first in-person event. He’s losing to Trump by 40 points in some early states.”
It’s true that Trump holds a commanding lead over DeSantis, but the race is best described as hours old. While Trump’s lead in those early states is crucial, DeSantis seems to be developing a delegate strategy that could at least give Trump a run for his money.
A key state in that DeSantis strategy is Florida. Florida is a winner-take-all state in terms of delegates in the GOP primary, meaning a DeSantis win in his home state could be critical.
Which is all the more reason why Donalds would be an intriguing vice presidential pick.
Donalds is, of course, from Florida, and could potentially eat into DeSantis’ advantage in that state. (Trump, too, claims Florida as his home state, but a recent poll found that DeSantis had the edge in the Sunshine State among Republicans there.)
Donalds’ ties to Florida, however, also come with ties to DeSantis. The Florida congressman and his wife are said to be close with DeSantis and the Florida governor’s spouse, Casey DeSantis. Donalds actually introduced DeSantis on Election Night in November when the governor won re-election by a 19-point margin. And Donalds has also reportedly shown some interest in eventually running for Florida governor himself.
So it was a bit surprising when Donalds endorsed Trump in April. Donalds has consistently defended that decision, and has now firmly become a fixture in Trump’s camp.
Of course, Trump is only in search of a vice president because he threw his last one under the MAGA bus. When Mike Pence refused to overturn the 2020 election, Trump directed his Twitter ire at him and sat by silently for hours as insurrectionists sought out the vice president to be hanged. When he was asked during that CNN town hall if he owed Pence an apology, not only did Trump not apologize, he doubled down.
“He did something wrong,” Trump said of Pence. “He should have put the votes back to the state legislatures and I think we would have had a different outcome.”
Still, there seems to be no shortage of elected Republicans jumping at the chance to associate themselves with Trump and potentially serve in his administration.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Trump’s VP list already includes the likes of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), former Democratic Rep.-turned-Republican Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former South Carolina Gov. (and current presidential candidate) Nikki Haley, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and failed Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake.
A Trump adviser told The Daily Beast, however, that, “privately, he is not excited about Noem, Haley, or Lake.”
In late April, a group of Trump-supporting Florida House members met with the former president at Mar-a-Lago, where notably Rep. Cory Mills (R-FL) and Donalds were seated next to the ex-president.
Rep. Byron Donalds next to Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
Courtesy of Cory Mills
Mills, who was highly supportive of Trump picking Donalds as vice president, told The Daily Beast that Trump had chosen the seating for that event, where the Florida delegation discussed whether or not Trump should attend certain debates and how to advance Trump’s policy agenda moving forward.
“I would support Congressman Donalds 100 percent,” Mills said, before noting that he’d heard his own name “tossed around” for a Trump Cabinet position.
“Many people are lobbying themselves and having others lobby,” the Trump adviser, who said the former president was currently down on Noem, Haley, and Lake, told The Daily Beast. “It’s silly season already!”