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Could the Trump VP vetting process go off the rails?

Veteran Washington lawyer Arthur B. Culvahouse methodically scrutinized John McCain's five-man shortlist in 2008, only to have Sarah Palin added last-minute, a chaotic process that some fear is repeating itself.

Culvahouse is again at the helm of the operation sniffing through VP contenders, this time for Donald Trump, and critics question whether the lengthy primary, early convention and seemingly frantic finish created an unhelpful crunch.

Rick Davis, McCain's 2008 campaign manager, said he sees signs that the Trump campaign wouldn't have had time to do the polling and research that typically supplements the background check.

"They are starting their vetting process where we picked up with Sarah Palin,” Davis said. "It's going to be less rigorous.”

That’s assuming Trump confines himself to the choices Culvahouse vetted at all.

Culvahouse, a 68-year-old former White House counsel, has been mum on the assignment, and declined through an assistant to comment for this story. But if his reputation and previous work are any indication, he's subjected Trump's candidates to a thorough questionnaire, interview and records search.

"Like anything, it's more about the client than the lawyer," said Stuart Stevens, a top strategist on Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, which also used Culvahouse to vet potential running mates. "Anything involving Donald Trump is usually chaotic and somewhat incoherent. I think the world of AB, but his advice is only as useful as the degree to which it's taken."

Newt Gingrich, a Trump short-lister who was subjected to a Culvahouse vet recently, provided some inside details Thursday on how it works. He described a process with 113 questions, and requests for everything he's written and all his taxes back to 2004.


"Now the vetting process is interesting, and [Culvahouse] had a very, I think, practical explanation," Gingrich said on Facebook, noting that Culvahouse and three other lawyers also grilled him for about three hours. "He said, you know, if you run for president, the American people vet you, the news media vets you. But if you’re picked to be vice president, there is no—you’re not in a primary, you’re not out in the open. You’re not being investigated by the reporters. And so it’s a much more rigorous process, actually, to be vetted for vice president than there is to be vetted for president. Now, I pointed out to him that having first run for office in 1974, having run for president in 2012 and [having been] speaker for four years, probably if he just googled my name, he’d have more material than he needed. And he laughed and said, ‘Yeah, but they have a process.’ "

Culvahouse concluded in 2008 that choosing Palin was "high risk, high reward" — an assessment he has stood behind in the face of criticism in some circles that the choice damaged McCain's credibility.

"We packed eight weeks of research into less than one," Culvahouse wrote in a 2012 Wall Street Journal op/ed defending the Palin process. "We pulled information from Alaska-centric websites, including her local critics' blogs and copies of Wasilla church sermons. Assisted by the candid information Gov. Palin provided, we identified and reported every issue that subsequently arose (with one exception: her husband's membership in the Alaska Independence Party)."

While Trump’s approach to his short-list — aside from Gingrich, said to include Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among others — may have the feel of a game-show audition, Culvahouse’s approach is the opposite.

That’s precisely why he was hired for the job — he’s known for his discretion and methodical examinations, honed over several presidential elections. In handling the vice-presidential vet for McCain and Romney, he cloistered the operation within his law firm, O'Melveney & Myers, a measure first taken to protect secrecy in 2008.

While he had 40 current and former O'Melveney lawyers on the McCain case, it isn't unclear how he's staffed for Trump. Not all the firm's top Republicans are participating, according one of the firm’s lawyers.

If the discussion of potential Trump running mates seems unusually public, "It wouldn't be AB Culvahouse that's leaking," said Ted Frank, a Washington lawyer who worked with him on the McCain vet.


Born on July 4 (and known to friends as AB) , Culvahouse grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. Today, his "me wall" (the customary office shrine to oneself photographed with great former bosses) displays Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Howard Baker. He also has thank-you notes from some of the top officials he's vetted, including David Souter for the Supreme Court and Robert Gates for CIA director, according to a 2011 profile in Washingtonian.

He has said in the past that combing through vice presidential candidates' professional, family, financial and medical histories has become increasingly intrusive — tougher than what the presidential candidate faces. The ultimate goal is "no surprises": to unearth anything damaging that the campaign could either use to eliminate the candidate or gird itself for a rough news cycle.

"You're always refighting old battles with questions about the kinds of things that have created scandals," Frank said. For example, candidates are typically asked about the immigration status of their housekeepers, after it scuttled two of President Bill Clinton's picks for attorney general in 1993.

Vetting now extends beyond candidate and spouse to siblings and parents. Romney's list had more than 80 questions, Culvahouse said on CNN in April.

The questionnaires can fill more than 100 pages, supplemented by tax returns and other documentation, according to Trevor Potter, who was general counsel to McCain's 2000 and 2008 campaigns. The lawyers follow up with emails and interviews.

"The secrets that get revealed on a vet report that are not in the public record usually stay secret," Potter said. "If it can be found on public records, it will be."

The final report Trump receives is expected to be about 40 or 50 pages, like opposition research files, except with the subject's extensive cooperation. Sometimes the biggest red flags are areas where the candidate refused to disclose, lawyers with vetting experience said.

"Everybody's got vulnerabilities," said Ken Gross, a lawyer at Skadden who helped vet Al Gore and Dan Quayle. "Like most things in life it becomes a balancing test, balancing the value that the person would have to the campaign versus having to slog through a soft issue."