WASHINGTON – Wanted: Top aide to most powerful leader in world. Chief qualification: Willing to take the job. Must also be prepared to tolerate regular undermining by boss and risk of steep legal bills. Post-employment prospects: Uncertain.
President Donald Trump is scrambling to find a new chief after his first choice to replace John Kelly bailed at the last minute and several other potential successors signaled they weren’t interested in the job.
The list of candidates is said to include Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Trump on Tuesday disputed news reports that he’s having a hard time finding someone to take the position.
“Fake News has it purposely wrong,” he claimed on Twitter. “Many, over ten, are vying for and wanting the White House Chief of Staff position. Why wouldn’t someone want one of the truly great and meaningful jobs in Washington.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday that Kelly would be staying on “at least” through Jan. 2 – longer than the timeframe Trump had originally provided when he announced the departure news Saturday.
“There are people vying for it. There are people under consideration. And it’s a personal decision for the president,” she told reporters.
Meadows said Monday he had not discussed the role with the president, but one congressional Republican said Meadows has told others he wants the job.
“It’s not been anything that I’ve been out advocating for,” Meadows said in an appearance on Fox News, but he added that “my life changed” after Trump’s top pick, Nick Ayers, vice president Mike Pence’s chief of staff, decided to pull out of the job.
Indeed, even senior White House aides were stunned by Ayers’ decision, leaving Trump, who had no back-ups lined up, scrambling to find a replacement. Trump is now soliciting input on a long list of candidates and allies are pitching even more contenders, including former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker – even White House communications director Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Many weren’t being taken seriously, but the breadth of the list highlighted the uncertainty in Trump’s political orbit over the job hunt.
Bossie, in an interview with Fox News Tuesday, did not deny interest in the job, but said he didn’t “foresee” Trump offering him the position.
As quickly as names were being floated, though, some candidates appeared to be pulling themselves from consideration, underscoring the challenges of working for a mercurial president who has acknowledged that he likes to surround himself with chaos and despises any suggestion he’s being managed.
“In the best of times, it is relentless,” said Chris Whipple, an expert on chiefs of staff and author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book on the subject. “It’s 24/7. It’s thankless. You get all of the blame and none of the credit for everything that happens. And that’s in the best of times. We are not in the best of times.”
Trump’s administration has set records for staff turnover, and the president has often struggled to attract experienced political professionals, a challenge that has grown more difficult with the upcoming threat of costly Democratic oversight investigations and an uncertain political environment.
Those who take high-level positions in the White House at this time open themselves up to potential legal exposure and pricey lawyer bills, said David B. Cohen, a political science professor at The University of Akron who co-wrote a book on chiefs of staff.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a potential contender, said he was “entirely focused” on his current position. A person familiar with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s thinking but not authorized to speak publicly made clear he, too, is happy in his current post.
While some of the reactions may be strategic posturing, there is also ample reason for any aspiring chief of staff to give pause to the notion of taking the job.
Trump has already burned through two chiefs of staff – a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a retired Marine four-star general – subjecting them to regular humiliation and ridicule.
Former RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’s departure from the White House was unceremoniously announced by tweet. Nearly 18 months later, Trump stepped on an orderly succession plan for Kelly, making a surprise Saturday announcement on the White House lawn that the retired general would be leaving by year’s end.
Trump and Ayers had discussed the job for months, and the president had already been steering inquiries to him rather than Kelly. These people, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record.
While a White House official said Ayers’ decision was driven by a desire to return to Georgia to be closer to his family, people familiar with his thinking said he was also worried about scrutiny of his former political consulting business. He and Trump also could not reach agreement on Ayers’ length of service. Ayers wanted to serve on an interim basis; Trump wanted a two-year commitment.
Trump was stung by Ayers’ decision to back out, according to people close to him. The embarrassment comes at a pivotal time for Trump, as he prepares for re-election while facing an expected onslaught of investigations from Democrats who will take control of the House and amid the ongoing Russia probe.
When Trump appoints a replacement for Kelly, he will set a record for most chiefs of staff within the first 24 months of an administration, according to an analysis by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the Brookings Institution.
Yet Trump once mocked his predecessor for chief of staff turnover.
“3 Chief of Staffs in less than 3 years of being President: Part of the reason why @BarackObama can’t manage to pass his agenda,” Trump wrote in a 2012 tweet.
With Ayers no longer waiting in the wings, there is fear that Trump may not have someone in place in time for Kelly’s departure or that he will pick the first person who comes to mind as he tries to counter perceptions that no one wants the position.
Trump has told confidants that he is eager to bring on someone he gets along with as his third chief of staff. His relationship with Kelly had long been frosty. Trump has told allies he wants someone he can chat with – trading gossip and complaining about media coverage – as well as someone more attuned politically.
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