How Marco Rubio Went from Rival to One of Donald Trump’s VP Finalists

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Friday.

When Marco Rubio flew with President Donald Trump on Air Force One in 2017, the Republican senator from Florida cracked a joke about Trump’s reported strong handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron. Rubio knew his hands weren’t small, Trump quipped.

Trump was referring to Rubio’s awkward attack on him – an implicit reference to male anatomy – during the 2016 primary, when the two were bitter rivals, charting different courses for the GOP. The in-flight conversation, recounted by then-Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), was one of the earliest indicators of a thaw in a once-frosty dynamic between Rubio and the man he had labeled a “con artist.” Now Rubio is a finalist to be Trump’s running mate, the culmination of a years-long shift that has impressed the former president’s allies – and surprised and disappointed some of the senator’s former associates.

“He decided to jump in the mud with Donald Trump back in 2016, and that really backfired,” Curbelo said in an interview. “But since then, he’s really kind of figured out how to navigate the Trumpian waters of the new Republican Party.”

The Trump campaign in recent weeks has requested paperwork from at least eight potential vice-presidential candidates, including Rubio. Trump has said he will announce his pick at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, which begins July 15.

Rubio spoke only in general terms in a recent interview about the prospect of running with Trump, saying that “anyone who’s offered the opportunity to serve our country in a position like that should not dismiss it and should consider doing it if their life allows them to do it, but I’m not going to opine on me because that’s presumptuous.”

Trump sees Rubio as an effective messenger for his agenda who is good on television, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the process – one of whom noted that Trump spoke favorably about a recent Rubio appearance on “Meet The Press.” The former president also values Rubio’s foreign policy credentials, allies said, and sees him as a potential key player on Western Hemisphere issues. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and a top aide in his White House, has argued the Cuban American senator is among the potential vice-presidential candidates who could help Trump make inroads with voters of color. Rubio is also popular among traditional Republicans, which could expand Trump’s reach and boost fundraising, the people said.

One major complicating factor for Rubio is that he and Trump are both Florida residents. Under the 12th Amendment, a Florida elector can’t vote for the ticket if Trump and his running mate are both Florida residents. During a private fundraiser last month at Mar-a-Lago, Trump alluded to that challenge.

“Every time they say ‘Is he being considered?’ I said absolutely even though we do have a little Florida problem,” Trump said, also nodding to Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), another Floridian under consideration. “They want to give you a little penalty: They want to take away all of your delegates. Other than that, there’s no problem.”

Unlike some of the other finalists, Rubio refrained from going to the New York courthouse with Trump during his hush money trial and hasn’t aggressively hit the fundraising circuit for him. He has found other ways to show his support, including a Newsweek opinion piece that described the upcoming election as “America’s Last Chance.”

“A vote for anyone other than Trump is literally a vote to normalize the weaponization of government against political opponents and criminalize the traditional American way of life,” Rubio wrote, echoing the former president.

Rubio also spoke at a Trump birthday event Friday in West Palm Beach, hosted by Club 47 USA, a Trump fan club.

After once declaring that Trump “has spent his entire career sticking it to the little guy,” Rubio told the audience at the Palm Beach County Convention Center: “He’s not doing it for him, he doesn’t need this. He’s running for president, he’s putting up with all of this because he’s doing it for us. He’s doing it for America, the country that he loves.”

The mutual support, which was years in the making according to interviews with associates of both men, contrasts sharply with the Republican presidential primary eight years ago, when Trump disparagingly dubbed Rubio “Little Marco” before routing him in Florida and forcing him from the contest. Some of Rubio’s former associates expressed surprise at some of his recent votes and statements.

Before his 2016 White House run, Rubio embraced an optimistic vision of America, often recounting his own experience as the son of Cuban immigrants as living proof of the American Dream. Less than three years after being elected to the Senate at 39 in the 2010 tea party wave, Rubio graced the cover of Time magazine, with the headline “The Republican Savior.” In 2015, he launched a presidential campaign on the promise of generational change and a “New American Century.”

For much of the 2016 campaign, Rubio largely avoided talking about Trump. As the race narrowed and Trump cemented his position as the leading candidate, Rubio suddenly engaged in the kind of name-calling and personal attack that Trump had wielded effectively. Trump was a “con man,” to hear Rubio tell it, one who was “dangerous” and would fracture the GOP. In turn, Trump said Rubio was a “disaster for Florida” and suggested he “couldn’t get elected dogcatcher.”

At one point, Rubio mocked the size of Trump’s hands – and alluded to another part of his anatomy: “You know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them.”

Trump later responded: “He referred to my hands – ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem.”

The attacks backfired, and Rubio soon bowed out of the race. Just before his exit, Rubio said it was “getting harder every day” to see supporting Trump. In his concession speech, Rubio called for a “new political establishment” and recognized that his aspirational pitch was no match for the anger- and grievance-fueled Trump campaign.

“People are angry. They are frustrated. They’re being left behind by this economy, and then they are told, ‘Look, if you’re against illegal immigration, that makes you a bigot,’” Rubio said in that speech. “From a political standpoint, the easiest thing to have done in this campaign is to jump on all those anxieties I just talked about, to make people angrier, make people more frustrated. But I chose a different route.”

One former Rubio fundraiser described the speech in Florida as “the fundamental change of Marco Rubio,” a sign that he’d move in a more populist direction over the next eight years.

By May, Rubio was on board with Trump.

“Trump didn’t create 2016, 2016 created Trump,” Rubio told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “The country was ready for someone that was willing to challenge the orthodoxy of the economy, on foreign policy, in a way that was needed and that I think is needed even more now.”

During Trump’s presidency, Rubio worked closely with the administration on Latin America policy, drawing comparisons to a “virtual secretary of state” for the region. The Trump administration sought his advice for hires, and he helped shape its policy toward Cuba and Venezuela. Rubio also worked with Ivanka Trump on a paid family leave initiative and sought to expand the child tax credit as part of the GOP’s 2017 tax law. That legislation increased the child tax credit, although Trump rebuffed Rubio’s attempts to do so more significantly in exchange for a smaller corporate tax cut than what Republicans passed into law.

“It’s important to keep in mind that politics is ultimately politics,” said Jason Miller, the Trump campaign adviser who referred to now-Vice President Harris’s attacks on President Biden over school busing during the Democratic primary. “By comparison, President Trump and any of his prospective VP picks will be much more simpatico.”

While Rubio has largely aligned with Trump on policy and recently echoed his refusal to commit to accepting the November election results, there are some differences that raise questions about what their dynamic would be as ticket mates or in a new administration.

Rubio, a more traditional foreign policy hawk, broke with the Trump administration over sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. He also broke with Trump over his emergency declaration to build a border wall. And the senator voted to certify the 2020 election results.

But Rubio more recently voted against a $95 billion foreign aid bill that delivered billions of dollars in weapons and support to key U.S. allies Ukraine and Israel – a move that surprised some fellow Republicans and former associates. Rubio – who in 2013 championed a comprehensive immigration overhaul with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants before disavowing the effort after its collapse – cited federal inaction on the border as his reason and in a floor speech described the package as “legislative blackmail.”

Asked how his views on foreign policy differ from Trump’s, Rubio responded, “I don’t have a line by line for you on it, but I can tell you that generally I think we’ve entered an era where we have to be much more pragmatic in our foreign policy and … our national interests should be at the core of all the decisions that we make.”

He added, “Things [Trump] talks about – maybe they’re expressed in ways that are not orthodox politically – they’re not unorthodox in terms of public policy.”

Trump has proved quick to forgive when there is political benefit. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) became a staunch ally after Trump gave out his cellphone number in 2015. More recently, he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fist-bumped at a Senate GOP meeting in D.C. (McConnell and Trump hadn’t spoken in years after the senator called the former president “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.)

“I don’t think that the evolution, if you will, from ‘Little Marco’ to a leading contender for VP is unusual for Donald Trump,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “It’s like being on the football field for, you know, 60 minutes of being in the trenches, pushing, running and knocking down, punching, clawing for victory and then praying in the middle of the field after the game.”