White House in chaos as Trump scrambles to fill chief of staff position

Nick Ayers ruled himself out of role

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 10 December 2018 20:15 GMT
John Kelly will leave post as White House chief of staff by end of year says Donald Trump

Donald Trump is scrambling to find a chief of staff amid mounting chaos in the White House, as Robert Mueller’s investigation gets ever nearer to the Oval Office.

The president has claimed he is in the process of “interviewing some really great people” for a position that is considered key to the functioning of any administration. But after he announced over the weekend that the current chief of staff, John Kelly, was stepping down, and the man expected to replace him ruled himself out, the process started to look increasingly shambolic.

“Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers, a spectacular person who will always be with our #MAGA agenda. I will be making a decision soon,” Mr Trump tweeted.

“The Trump administration has accomplished more than any other US Administration in its first two (not even) years of existence, and we are having a great time doing it! All of this despite the Fake News Media, which has gone totally out of its mind – truly the Enemy of the People.”

Reports said Mr Ayers, 36, currently chief of staff to vice president Mike Pence and considered a tough and effective political operator, had been in talks for several months to take over from Mr Kelly. Reuters said he had been unable to agree terms with the president and would instead leave the administration and return to the state of Georgia, where he worked before joining Mr Pence’s team.

With him out of the running, attention has focussed on treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, conservative congressman Mark Meadows and US trade representative Robert Lighthizer. Reports suggested former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was once close to Mr Trump but later sidelined after the 2016 election, was also being considered.

Yet, the position of Mr Trump’s third chief of staff, may have few high calibre applicants. The president notoriously hates to be managed, preferring to make decisions and announcements on the cuff, even if doing so undermines others in the administration.

The job is grinding at the best of times. Barack Obama had five chiefs of staff over his two terms.

Mr Kelly, 68, a former Marine Corps general, who took on the job in July last year, was brought in to bring about order after several months of sheer turbulence in the White House, when the president’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, tried in vain to juggle the West Wing’s various factions.

Mr Priebus later told Chris Whipple, author of a book on White House chiefs of staff entitled The Gatekeepers: “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50.”

Former FBI Director James Comey tells MSNBC Trump is not yet an unindicted co-conspirator to charges but 'is certainly close'

“The job of chief of staff is persistently one of the toughest in DC,” Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at New York’s Iona College, told The Independent.

“Given that Donald Trump is probably more difficult to control or manage than others, it makes it that much more difficult.”

Ms Zaino said anyone coming into the job would immediately be confronted by a large number of challenges – a newly invigorated, Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, a potential trade war with China, an expected downturn in the economy, plus the relentless investigation by Mr Mueller into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 campaign and possible collusion by the Trump campaign.

David Corn, political editor of Mother Jones magazine, said: “I can’t figure out for the life of me any accomplished and serious person who would want to take on that job. Few leave the Trump administration with their reputations—and perhaps even their souls—unscathed. It’s true mystery. But ambition can always find a date.”

Last week, it was revealed Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, told prosecutors he had broken the law and paid hush money to women on the eve of the election, at the behest of the candidate.

“With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments,” said a sentencing filing.

“In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1 [Mr Trump].”

Ms Zaino said the White House would sooner or later pick a new chief of staff. “That’s not the question,” she said. “The question will be about the quality of the person.”

On Monday, Mr Trump described the payments Cohen made to former model Karen McDougal and adult actor Stormy Daniels, “a private matter”, after Democrats threatened to seek his impeachment.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who will lead the judiciary committee when Democrats take control of the House next month, said on Sunday if the payments were found to violate campaign finance laws, it would be an impeachable offence.

His counterpart on the intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, said the president could be indicted once he left office and could “face the real prospect of jail time”.

Reuters said under US law, campaign contributions, defined as things of value given to a campaign to influence an election, must be disclosed. Such payments are also limited to $2,700 per person.

Earlier this year, Mr Trump acknowledged repaying Cohen for the $130,000 paid to Ms Daniels. He previously disputed knowing anything about the payments.

On Monday, the president again denied any wrongdoing and sought to shift blame to Cohen. “Democrats can’t find a smoking gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia after James Comey’s testimony. No smoking gun ... No collusion,” he tweeted, referring to a Fox News comment on the case.

“So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution, which it was not.”

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