WASHINGTON — During a candlelit dinner with Mar-a-Lago members in late December, former President Donald Trump walked around the table as the conversation turned to one of the biggest decisions he’d have to make should he become the Republican nominee: Whom should he pick to be his running mate?
That’s when Rep. Elise Stefanik, the hard-charging upstate New York Republican, came up, according to a person at the dinner table. Attendees around Trump raved about her viral moment just weeks before, when she grilled three university presidents at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus.
At the thought of Stefanik as a possible choice for vice president, Trump nodded approvingly.
“She’s a killer,” Trump said, according to the person at the event.
Ever since then, Trump and a growing group of allies have started to look more closely at Stefanik as a running mate, according to eight people familiar with the matter, including people in Trump’s orbit, Stefanik fundraising bundlers and former Trump administration officials.
At the time, the 39-year-old congresswoman was at the crest of a wave of national publicity after taking on the top leaders of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their answers to the question, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your college’s] rules on bullying and harassment?” eventually resulted in two of them resigning and brought a firestorm of criticism on the schools.
But Stefanik was on Trump’s radar long before that hearing, because she possesses one of the key attributes he’s looking for in a 2024 running mate: loyalty. That, mixed with her ability to drive the news on key issues, may be an irresistible mix for a vice presidential pick.
“Stefanik is at the top,” said Steve Bannon, who was Trump’s chief strategist in the White House and the architect of his 2016 campaign strategy.
“If you’re Trump, you want someone who’s loyal above all else,” a Republican campaign operative said. “Particularly because he sees Mike Pence as having made a fatal sin.”
On Wednesday, after this story was published, Stefanik announed she would be campaigning with Trump in New Hampshire.
Once a moderate Republican who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Stefanik shifted to the right and rebranded herself as one of Trump’s top allies on Capitol Hill after he won the White House in 2016.
“She’s come a long way, and now she’s really, really with us,” Trump said during a lunch in the spring of 2022, according to a source familiar with his comments, adding, “She was kind of with us before, but she’s really with us now.”
Stefanik declined to comment on whether she would be interested in being Trump’s running mate, telling NBC News she was focused on her role in Congress.
“I’m not going to get into any of my conversations with President Trump. I’m honored to call him a friend. I’m proud to be the first member of Congress to have endorsed his re-election, and he had a huge win in Iowa. So we’re very excited about that,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Trump campaign did not return a request for comment.
Stefanik’s loyalty is out in the open — including in an interview this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press” — and it’s a stark contrast with Pence, who became a target of Trump and his supporters after he refused to go along with Trump’s plan to deny Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory. The former vice president, in turn, frequently criticized Trump and his election denialism during his short-lived presidential bid last year.
Stefanik, on the other hand, has been known for years in Congress as one of the lead crusaders defending Trump; she served on Trump’s impeachment defense team in 2019 and backed his efforts to overturn the 2020 election that led to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
She did not rule out in the “Meet the Press” interview that she would be the former president’s running mate.
“Well, I, of course, would be honored to serve in any capacity in a Trump administration,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik also attracted attention for that interview when she echoed the president’s language calling the Jan. 6 defendants “hostages.” On Wednesday, Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., announced he would file a resolution to censure Stefanik — a move that could make her even more popular with Trump’s base.
It’s these displays of allegiance — including her refusal to certify an “unconstitutional” presidential election in 2020 and potentially in 2024 — that showcase the New York representative’s skill at seizing moments to advance Trump’s interests and dispatch his enemies, and have apparently vaulted her ahead of the competition.
That December dinner wasn’t the first time that Trump had brought up Stefanik, both as a loyal confidant and a possible VP candidate, according to another person who has attended past events involving both of them.
At an event for Stefanik’s joint fundraising committee on June 6, 2022, at Trump’s golf course in Briarcliff Manor, New York, a source in attendance heard the former president telling attendees that he was keeping watch on how she would treat him as he edged closer to a decision about running for president.
“What Trump has consistently remarked about is how good she’d be as a VP,” this person explained.
Trump has long talked about Stefanik’s prospects for higher office, telling attendees at a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser two years ago, attended by Stefanik, that after 2024 she could be the next president, confirmed the chairman of Conservative Party in New York state, Gerry Kassar.
And in November, Stefanik, as the chair of the House Republican Conference, endorsed Trump for president. At the time, she was the highest-ranking congressional leader to endorse him in the primary.
Stefanik’s loyalty has also been on display as she takes the fight to the judges and prosecutors battling Trump in the courtroom.
In recent months, Stefanik has gone after the presiding judge in the New York civil fraud case against Trump, called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the former president’s fixer Michael Cohen, and filed a complaint against the federal judge who supervised the grand jury for special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment of Trump.
“Stefanik brings, obviously, incredible talents at many levels, from the House, and knowing how to defend President Trump and the MAGA movement,” Bannon said. “And most importantly, she knows how to play what I call the unforgiving moment, when you have to make that decision to go all in.”
“She picks her shots and she knows where her leverage is,” Bannon continued. “And she understands something that’s quite rare today, which is modern communications. She knows what can make an impact. So she’s clearly a huge talent.”
Her House GOP colleagues said Stefanik would be a tremendous asset to Trump because he knows her well, he trusts her and she would bring a deep knowledge of Capitol Hill to the ticket.
“Very intelligent, very articulate, she’s done a great job as conference chairwoman. And if President Trump were to choose her as his running mate, I think it would be a great team,” Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., the chairman of the largest caucus of conservatives on the Hill, said in an interview.
“She has an incredible working relationship with the House … and has a lot of respect in the Senate as well,” he added.
In New York, Stefanik is known as a frequent presence not only in her district but across the state — and someone who can easily be reached.
“She is someone that I actually text,” said Kassar, adding that, especially with fundraising, Stefanik “goes out of her way to help.”
For Trump, bringing on Stefanik could also bolster his already very strong fundraising operation.
Stefanik’s team announced it raised over $5 million in the fourth quarter of 2023. That haul coincided with Stefanik’s high-profile moment with the university presidents.
Aside from Stefanik, Bannon ticked through his view of Trump’s deep bench of potential VP picks. He named South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake as other possibilities.
He also said not to count out Nikki Haley, who has garnered strong support from Wall Street and other right-leaning business and media corners.
“What MAGA’s got to do is make sure that President Trump fully considers the alternatives, because he’s going to be under tremendous pressure from the donors to pick Nikki Haley, and from Fox,” Bannon said. “They’re profiling her right now. It’s the Nikki Haley channel.”
Like Haley, Stefanik could be a bridge to some donors who aren’t fully sold on Trump. Yet where Trump has torched Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a rival in the GOP primary, as “unreliable and disloyal,” he has praised Stefanik for her political acumen.
Stefanik’s New York roots and success winning over a district that twice voted for Barack Obama for president could be another draw, as Trump looks to seize on Biden’s popularity slipping with some voters in the traditionally blue state.
“She’s a tent builder. She expands the party in many ways,” Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republican Club, said of Stefanik.
“Haley’s name was thrown around a lot because they were looking for someone to come onto the ticket that can win over a certain demographic of the electorate that Trump has struggled with, but I think anything that Nikki Haley would have brought to the table Elise brings to the table — without costing any votes from the base, or from MAGA, or from more conservative voters,” Wax said.
Stefanik has also shown herself willing to go to the mat for Trump, said Roger Stone, a veteran Republican strategist with a longtime allegiance to the former president. Still, Stone said there is a long road ahead.
“Any shortlist in my opinion should include Elise Stefanik,” Stone said. “She’s demonstrated her courage and her leadership qualities. But it’s also very, very early in the process.”
Trump said during a recent town hall in Iowa that he already knows who his running mate will be, although a Trump campaign adviser later pushed back on that, saying, “Nothing is finalized.”
While Trump has teased a decision, those who know him best say a public announcement is not expected for some time.
“When does the convention start? That’s when you make the choice,” Bannon said. “It’s Trump — it will be ‘The Apprentice.’ It will come down to the final episode.”