News & Politics

How the Lawyer Who Vetted Sarah Palin Will Help Trump Find a VP

Washington lawyer A.B. Culvahouse led the search for John McCain in 2008.

Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has reportedly hired Washington lawyer A.B. Culvahouse Jr. to vet possible vice-presidential candidates.

Senator John McCain charged Culvahouse with the same task in 2008, a search that ultimately led to Sarah Palin. “I summed up her selection as ‘high risk, high reward,’” Culvahouse wrote in a Wall Street Journal article in 2012. “I stand by that advice.”

In 2011, Washingtonian‘s Marisa Kashino wrote a terrific profile of Culvahouse that goes into far more detail about how his selection process led to Palin. “Rightly or wrongly, GOP leaders have since cast blame on Palin for costing them control of the Senate in the November election,” Kashino wrote. Culvahouse, she wrote, “couldn’t have known that for all of his years and accomplishments in Washington, vetting Palin would be what finally brought him—one of the city’s great secret-keepers and behind-the-scenes players—out of obscurity.”

Kashino describes the process:

Once the campaign narrowed the list to five names, the process became much more intensive. The people on the short list—[US Senator Joseph] Lieberman, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Florida governor Charlie Crist—had personal interviews with Culvahouse and responded to 74 written questions, which he had formulated.

Some questions were tailored to each candidate. Prior to sending the questionnaires and conducting the interviews, Culvahouse corresponded with either the lawyer or the accountant of each contender to parse legal and financial histories. Once he had this information, he determined what issues required questioning.

Palin was added to the short list late in the game, meaning Culvahouse and his team had to condense this process into a few days, whereas they’d had months for the other five people.

Ted Frank, the attorney who wrote the final report on Palin, told Kashino that, as she put it, the “vetting team tried to make her shortcomings clear to McCain’s political advisers.”  Culvahouse told her he told McCain: “She will not be ready on January 20, but she has the smarts to get there.”


Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.