Trump Seeks New Chief After Ayers Roils Kelly Succession Plan
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said he’s interviewing candidates to replace outgoing chief of staff John Kelly, and declared it “fake news” that top vice presidential aide Nick Ayers had been certain to get the job before withdrawing.
The White House now faces a potentially chaotic transition in a vital leadership role with Ayers out of the running, despite months of advance conversations with the president.
The focus now turns to other candidates to fill Kelly’s shoes. Among the people Trump is actively weighing, or has mentioned as possibilities, are Republican Representative Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus; U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer; budget director Mick Mulvaney and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin isn’t being considered at the moment despite reports he is among the contenders, the people said. Two others mentioned by advisers close to the president are former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and David Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager.
Trump didn’t name anyone he’s considering to replace Kelly in a Sunday evening tweet.
Ayers and Trump weren’t able to agree on a plan for Ayers to stay in the job for two years as the president wanted, a White House official said Sunday. Ayers had said he could stay in the job for no more than three or four months because he promised his family he would return to Georgia, two White House officials said earlier.
Kelly brought a sense of order to the White House and tamped down the infighting that broke out almost from the day Trump took office. Any vacuum in the top management post would risk feeding internal strife in an administration with independent-minded senior officials and an improvisational president comfortable with turning to outsiders for counsel.
The president will decide on a chief of staff by end of the year, said another person familiar with the matter. Trump announced Saturday as he left the White House for the Army-Navy football game that Kelly 68, a retired Marine general and Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary, would depart toward the end of the year.
Whitaker was among people who watched the game with Trump from a private box, and he also accompanied the president to a speech at a law enforcement conference on Friday.
Ayers, who is chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, will help oversee political operations for the president’s 2020 campaign, and his duties may include running a pro-Trump super-PAC. He’ll work from his home state, the official said.
"I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause," Ayers wrote on Twitter.
Pence said on Twitter that 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."
Ayers had emerged as a frontrunner to replace Kelly and was reported to have had months of discussions with the president, including recent travel on Air Force One.
Kelly replaced Reince Priebus in July 2017 with the mission of imposing order in the White House. Kelly had some early successes and was often labeled one of the "grown-ups" whose job was to keep the increasingly frenetic president in check.
But his relationship with the president, Trump’s family and some advisers soured as they came to view him as too rigid. Trump increasingly bypassed Kelly to talk to old friends and outside advisers, tweet or make tactical moves against Kelly’s advice.
Trump earlier this year asked Kelly to remain as his chief of staff through the remainder of his first term, but the signs of tension between the two men had grown in recent months.
Kelly’s departure will come as the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives and the new revelations from Robert Mueller’s Russia probe are emboldening Trump’s political opposition. The White House is simultaneously gearing up for Trump’s re-election campaign.
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