Trump struggles to replace Kelly as his first choice turns him down
11th December 2018

The toughest job in Washington is proving just as tough to fill, as Donald Trump lacks an immediate successor for Chief of Staff John Kelly following the president’s announcement on Saturday that the retired Marine general would leave the White House.

Mr Trump failed to line up a replacement before abruptly announcing Mr Kelly’s departure to reporters. That sets up a potentially chaotic transition for a job crucial to maintaining a semblance of stability under a commander in chief famed for his unpredictability.

The president said on Sunday evening that he was interviewing chief-of-staff candidates after vice president Mike Pence’s top aide, Nick Ayers, turned him down.

People Mr Trump is actively weighing, or has mentioned as possibilities, include Republican representative Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus; US trade representative Robert Lighthizer; budget director Mick Mulvaney and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Other names mentioned by some White House aides and advisers include David Bossie, who was Mr Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

But several of the people Mr Trump’s considering would come at a cost. Mr Lighthizer is leading sensitive trade negotiations with China. Mr Mulvaney is trying to prevent fights over the budget and debt ceiling from getting worse than they already are. Mr Meadows is a key White House ally in Congress. Mr Whitaker is supervising Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Any vacuum in the White House’s top management job risks encouraging the return of internal strife. Mr Trump’s administration is characterised by independent-minded senior officials and an improvisational president who relies on a network of friends and outside advisers for counsel.

Mr Ayers and Mr Trump weren’t able to agree on a plan for Mr Ayers to stay in the job for two years as the president desired, a White House official said on Sunday. Mr Ayers (36) said he could stay in the job for no more than three or four months because he promised his wife he would move their family home to Georgia, White House officials said.

Mr Ayers, who is Mr Pence’s chief of staff, said on Sunday he’ll depart the White House at the end of the year. He’ll help supervise political operations for Trump’s 2020 campaign from his home state of Georgia, one White House official said, and his duties may include running a pro-Trump super-PAC.

Mr Pence said on Twitter that Mr Ayers “has done an outstanding job as my Chief of Staff and I will always be grateful for his friendship, dedication to the @VP team and his efforts to advance the @POTUS agenda”.

Mr Ayers emerged as a frontrunner to replace Mr Kelly, who is 68, after months of discussions with the president, including recent travel on Air Force One. But he had detractors in the White House, where some aides considered the vice president’s young chief of staff brash and presumptuous.

He’s also regarded sceptically in some quarters for his wealth, amassed rapidly in an earlier career as a political consultant. Mr Ayers disclosed assets worth at least $12.2m and as much as $54.8m when he joined the administration, and income of at least $1.6m. Federal officials disclose the value of their assets and their income in wide ranges.

Mr Kelly replaced Reince Priebus in July 2017 with the mission of imposing order in the White House. The retired general had some early successes, especially at limiting access to the Oval Office and controlling the flow of paperwork to Mr Trump’s desk.

The new chief of staff tamped down the infighting that broke out almost from the day Mr Trump took office.

But his relationship with the president, Trump’s family and other aides soured. Mr Trump increasingly bypassed Kelly to talk to old friends and outside advisers, tweet or make tactical moves against his chief of staff’s advice.

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