Over the past 24 hours, President Donald Trump has been privately asking friends, confidants, and close aides who they think should be his new chief of staff, according to two sources with direct knowledge of conversations.
Trump has asked allies what they think about the idea of taping Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, as John Kelly’s permanent replacement, according to these two sources. Trump has also mentioned three other candidates besides Meadows, according to one source with direct knowledge, however, I don’t yet know who they are.
Nick Ayers, the previously considered favorite, is out of the running to be chief of staff, according to various sources with direct knowledge.
“Nick couldn’t give POTUS a two-year commitment, so he’s going to help him on the outside instead,” one source said.
Ayers is expected to run the pro-Trump super pac America First Action, according to another source with direct knowledge. Trump will make a decision on Kelly’s replacement by the end of the year, the source added.
At this point, Trump doesn’t know what he’s going to do.
Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, was Trump’s first choice for the job. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who have been determined to remove Kelly, have advocated for Ayers, who has been secretly discussing the job with their father and father in law in the West Wing and White House residence for close to six months.
Ayers told Trump he’d only commit to taking the job until next spring — as chief caretaker until Trump finds a permanent replacement. Trump has privately asked for a two-year commitment, and didn’t appreciate that Ayers wanted to announce an end date.
Ayers has refused to be announced as permanent chief and told Trump he deserves a two-year commitment from whomever replaces Kelly, according to sources familiar with their conversations. Even people opposing Ayers told me that if he’d wanted the job, he could have had it.
The bottom line is that this has left Trump scratching around for a new chief after announcing on Saturday that Kelly will leave the White House at the end of the year.
On Friday night, the most senior White House staff and their spouses, around 50 in all, sat around a long table for Christmas dinner in the State Dining Room of the executive residence.
Christmas trees lined the walls and waiters served squash soup, fish and chocolate cake. A military choir sang Christmas carols, “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” and a military band played.
Ayers showed up late to the dinner, several guests noticed. Unbeknownst to most everyone there, he’d been meeting with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Kelly to secretly discuss the terms of Kelly’s departure and Ayers’ likely ascent to chief of staff, according to two sources briefed on the meeting.
They decided Kelly would announce his departure to staff on Monday. But Trump got ahead of him, announcing his exit to reporters on Saturday in an impromptu press gaggle on the White House lawn.
Two guests described the dinner as “awkward” because the elephant in the room — Trump’s plan to oust Kelly and replace him with Ayers — wasn’t brought up as the two sat at the table.
Instead, sources recalled, Trump gave a generic pep talk: “We are doing a great job. You guys all work hard. Chief Kelly has done a great job.”
“We all knew something was up, but nobody talked about it,” one dinner attendee told me.