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What Trump's Chaotic VP Process Says About His Campaign

After a long day of leaks, arguments and miscommunication, Donald Trump considered abandoning his choice of Mike Pence as running-mate.
Image: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Indiana Governor Mike Pence wave to the crowd before addressing the crowd during a campaign stop at the Grand Park Events Center in Westfield
Donald Trump and Indiana Governor Mike Pence in front of crowds in Westfield, Indiana, Tuesday.JOHN SOMMERS II / Reuters

After a long day of leaks, arguments and miscommunication, Donald Trump considered abandoning his choice of Mike Pence as running-mate as late as the early hours of Friday, NBC News has learned.

The campaign pushed back against reports of Trump wavering, but the news underscored the confusion surrounding the vice presidential selection process that ended Friday morning.

Trump’s VP search seemed to consciously resemble "The Apprentice" over the last several weeks, as Trump joined potential picks onstage at events around the country. In its final stretch, though, it took a turn for "The Surreal Life."

Starting Thursday, the process played out in a confusing blizzard of reports, campaign statements and interviews in public, and debates, vacillation and grousing in private. It was the latest sign that, for all the efforts to professionalize the Trump operation since bringing in top aide Paul Manafort and ousting campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, the campaign is ultimately driven by its candidate’s unpredictable gut instincts. Whatever team or party actors he brings in are there to respond to his pronouncements, not craft or control them.

Related: How Democrats Will Attack Trump's VP Pick Mike Pence

The VP drama came as the candidate and campaign were struggling to get on the same page with their convention planning as well. Trump initially suggested he would release an official list of scheduled convention speakers last Wednesday. The list came out Thursday instead. A senior Trump official informed the press on Thursday that famed quarterback Tim Tebow would add his star power to the event, but on Thursday night Tebow posted a video on Facebook calling the news a “rumor” and indicating he would not speak at the convention.

“Every day there is something else,” one party operative told NBC News, adding they felt “numb” after the latest tumult.

But the chaos surrounding Trump’s vice presidential choice was more intense, and the latest evidence of the campaign’s persistent inability to get on the same page with its candidate. Sources described Trump, who had high hopes for a picturesque rollout, stewing in Trump Tower on Friday morning while aides pointed fingers over who to blame for the breakdown.

Here’s how it played out in public: Thursday began with a series of reports, first from Roll Call and then the Indianapolis Star, indicating, based on anonymous sources, that Trump chose Pence. In response, campaign officials insisted Trump had made no decision. As the day went on, NBC News reported that there were lingering debates between Trump’s family members, who favored someone like Newt Gingrich with whom they had more familiarity, and Trump’s top adviser Manafort, who was urging Pence.

By Thursday evening, Pence appeared to be the choice, having flown to New York to join the candidate for an announcement scheduled for 11 a.n. Friday. But just after 7 p.m. ET, Trump abruptly cancelled the event in response to the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France. He phoned into Fox News minutes later, where rather than cast the move as a mere delay, he indicated he was still deciding between Pence, Gingrich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Related: Who is Mike Pence?

“I haven't made my final, final decision,” Trump said on Fox. “I mean, I've got three people that are fantastic. I think Newt is a fantastic person. I think Chris Christie is a fantastic person, been a friend of mine for 15 years, just a fantastic person, and there's Mike, and Mike has done a great job as governor of Indiana.”

In the short term, the timing of Trump’s move had serious implications for Pence, who faced a Friday noon deadline in Indiana to withdraw from his re-election bid in order to qualify for the vice presidential ballot in his state.

As NBC News reported, Trump, in private, was outraged over early leaks indicating he’d chosen Pence. Surprisingly, Trump on Thursday had been relatively alone even as he faced his biggest campaign choice to date: He was in California on a fundraising trip, away from his immediate family and from Manafort, the primary voices in his decision-making process.

"This pick came when no one was in the same place,” a source within the campaign told NBC News.

Trump’s irritation, the odd timing of his response to the Nice attacks followed by two phone interviews to Fox and his refusal to confirm whether he had made a final choice, underscored serious doubts until the last moment about Pence. Trump even made calls as late as midnight, per NBC's reporting, asking confidants whether it would be possible to backtrack on the pick in favor of someone else. Sources familiar with the calls said he felt “backed into a corner" by competing concerns over his individual choices.

A spokesman for Trump denied the account of Trump's late night phone conservations, which were first reported by CNN. Manafort told NBC News the story was “totally untrue" Friday afternoon.

It would make sense if Trump felt uneasy with setting his pick in stone. Throughout the campaign, he has fought fiercely to keep from ever being backed into a corner. He’s shuffled through staff, flip-flopped on key positions, even denied comments he’d made earlier on camera -- anything to keep himself from being tied down. But once a running-mate is chosen, you’re stuck with that person unless something goes extraordinarily wrong.

Unfortunately for Trump if he makes it to the White House: a lot of presidential decisions have permanent implications as well.

Whether it was a bid to influence Trump during his "Hamlet" act is unclear, but two of Trump’s finalists -- Gingrich and retired Gen. Michael Flynn -- rushed to respond to the Nice attack with the most attention-grabbing, Trumpian reactions possible on Thursday night. Gingrich proposed on Fox News that the government “test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.” Flynn tweeted a picture of Hillary Clinton wearing a hijab and said it showed "disrespect for American Values and Principles."

Related: Mike Pence Quick Facts

Manafort tried to clarify the state of play in interviews early Friday, but sounded reluctant to get ahead of his candidate. “I think Mr. Trump has reached a decision but he isn’t prepared to announce it yet,” he told Fox News. “Until he announces it, it's not final,” he added on CNN. Trump did not delay the decision for political reasons, Manafort insisted, but because he “emotionally reacted” to the carnage in Nice.

Manafort’s hesitance to speak directly for Trump was borne out of experience. After joining the campaign in May, he indicated to the Huffington Post that Trump was “moderating” his proposed Muslim ban as part of a pivot to the general election. The comment irked Trump, who then dressed Manafort down for presuming to speak on his behalf, a source told NBC News.

"He's been misquoted actually a lot," Trump told reporters at a press conference in North Dakota when asked about the Manafort interview. Trump later doubled down on the Muslim ban after the terrorist attack on an Orlando nightclub in June with a speech claiming he had been vindicated since announcing the idea.

Trump finally ended the VP confusion with his tweet announcing the Pence pick. But the implication of the overall episode was clear: It’s Trump’s campaign. Everyone else is just along for the bumpy ride.