Ayers won’t be Trump chief of staff, disrupting succession plan

Chief of staff to the vice-president Nick Ayers stands outside a meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: Top vice-presidential aide Nick Ayers won’t take over as expected from John Kelly when the White House chief of staff steps down, setting up a potentially chaotic transition in a vital leadership post under President Donald Trump.

With Ayers out of the running, the focus turns to other candidates to fill Kelly’s shoes.

Among those Trump is actively weighing, or has mentioned as possibilities, are 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.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin isn’t being considered at the moment despite some media reports he is among the contenders, the people said.

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 that Kelly 68, a retired Marine general and Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary, would depart toward the end of the year.

The White House official said Ayers, now 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.