Potential rival or running mate? Kristi Noem, the governor denying Trump a face on Mount Rushmore | Republicans

Donald Trump’s rough summer continues. Hammered by the January 6 committee, his influence ebbing and possible prosecution looming, now the former US president must face the death of a long cherished dream.

No, Trump’s face will not be carved into Mount Rushmore.

Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota, home to the hallowed national memorial, has ruled out any additions to the 60-foot-tall (18-metre) faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Noem first told the story of Trump’s wish to be immortalized on Mount Rushmore in 2018. On Thursday, speaking with reporters in Washington, she recounted again her first meeting with Trump in the Oval Office when she was a member of Congress.

“I said, ‘Mr President, I’m Kristi Noem, I’m from South Dakota. South Dakota is the home of Mount Rushmore. You should come visit it sometime.’ And he said, ‘Oh, did you know that it is my dream to have my face on Mount Rushmore?’ And I was surprised by that. We laughed and chuckled about it.”

But asked on Thursday by the Guardian if Trump’s dream of being carved into the monument could be realized even after his involvement in the January 6 insurrection, Noem replied: I don’t think we’re adding any faces to Mount Rushmore any time soon. It’s pretty special just the way it is.

“I don’t think anybody has ever claimed that any of our leaders were perfect. Every one of us has flaws but we still have leaders that led us through challenging times. Remembering that history is incredibly important.”

Noem is widely seen as a potential rival – or running mate – for Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. This week she published a memoir, Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland, and delivered speeches to the Heritage Foundation thinktank and National Conservative Student Conference in Washington.

At the latter event she was supreme accompanied by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, apparently working for her again after a brief hiatus, and she held an informal conversation with reporters where questions included the court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion.

Then-president Donald Trump with Kristi Noem during a meeting at the White House in 2018
Then-president Donald Trump with Kristi Noem during a meeting at the White House in 2018. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

A trigger law took effect banning abortion in South Dakota except to save the life of a pregnant woman. Some conservatives in the state legislature wanted to go further but Noem has proven hesitant, fueling speculation that she is softening her position around the edges to broaden her national appeal.

On Thursday she said she had no objections to women traveling out of state to get an abortion elsewhere. “I don’t know of any legislators who are seriously pursuing that and I’m certainly not. And to be clear, even in South Dakota, if they were to get an abortion, even though the law doesn’t allow it, a woman would never be prosecuted. It would be the doctor who facilitated it and knowingly broke the law and not the women.”

But Noem gave little solace to those who fear the supreme court’s rightwing majority could next go after the right to same-sex marriage. “I’ve never supported gay marriage as far as the legality of it in our state. For me, a lot of my faith has to do with that and the legal documentation of that. But I do know that a lot of people are still continuing to have those discussions.”

Noem, the first woman to hold the governor’s office in South Dakota and up for reelection this year, resisted significant lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic and accused other state governors of having “overstepped their authority”. In her address to the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, she also lambasted Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

“He, out of anybody in this country, should never be given one minute of airtime ever again for the devastation that he has wrecked on so many families,” she said. “He has wiped out their livelihoods, he has destroyed kids’ education – we have kids that will forever struggle because they’ve been forced to wear masks that have hurt their development. It is a tragedy what that man was allowed to do to the United States of America.”

Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, has repeatedly hit back at his rightwing critics in kind.

Last year he told the New York Times: “’Fauci has blood in his hands’ – are you kidding me? Here’s a guy whose entire life has been devoted to saving lives, and now you’re telling me he’s like Hitler? You know, come on, folks. Get real.”

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