Trump Struggles to Fill Toughest Job in Washington: His Chief

(Bloomberg) -- 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.

Trump Struggles to Fill Toughest Job in Washington: His Chief

Trump failed to line up a replacement before abruptly announcing 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 Sunday evening that he was interviewing chief-of-staff candidates after Vice President Mike Pence’s top aide, Nick Ayers, turned him down.

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

Mulvaney doesn’t want the job, said a person close to the budget director. He has been telling allies for almost two months that he would be more interested in Treasury Secretary or Commerce Secretary if those positions opened, the person said.

Trump Struggles to Fill Toughest Job in Washington: His Chief

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

But several of the people Trump’s considering would come at a cost. Lighthizer is leading sensitive trade negotiations with China. Mulvaney is trying to prevent fights over the budget and debt ceiling from getting worse than they already are. Meadows is a key White House ally in Congress. 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. Trump’s administration is characterized by independent-minded senior officials and an improvisational president who relies on a network of friends and outside advisers for counsel.

Trump Struggles to Fill Toughest Job in Washington: His Chief

Ayers’s Objection

Ayers and Trump weren’t able to agree on a plan for Ayers to stay in the job for two years as the president desired, a White House official said Sunday. 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.

Ayers, who is Pence’s chief of staff, said 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.

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.”

Trump Struggles to Fill Toughest Job in Washington: His Chief

Ayers emerged as a frontrunner to replace 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 skeptically in some quarters for his wealth, amassed rapidly in an earlier career as a political consultant. Ayers disclosed assets worth at least $12.2 million and as much as $54.8 million when he joined the administration, and income of at least $1.6 million. Federal officials disclose the value of their assets and their income in wide ranges.

Soured Relationship

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 Trump’s desk.

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

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

Trump earlier this year asked Kelly to remain in his job through the remainder of his first term, and Kelly agreed. But tension between the two men and between Kelly and other top officials had grown in recent months. And Kelly’s aversion to politics came to be regarded as a liability in a White House preparing to confront Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, as well as a Democratic-led House of Representatives and federal prosecutors inching closer toward implicating the president in crimes related to his election.

It’s now not clear how long Kelly will stick around. After reports Friday morning that he was about to be replaced, he wasn’t seen at the White House until a dinner that night. He didn’t accompany Trump to the Army-Navy football game on Saturday, but did show up for work Monday morning and greeted staff members with a smile, according to two administration officials.

Before Ayers withdrew from consideration, the White House had been planning to have Kelly announce his departure and Ayers’s ascension at a senior staff meeting Monday morning.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.