Trump needs a new chief of staff – and the hunt will reignite old and toxic rivalries

The shallow pool of candidates for the key White House position pits together old enemies Chris Christie and Jared Kushner

Kim Sengupta
Friday 14 December 2018 18:26 GMT
Trump says he has five chief of staff candidates

In The Apprentice, the TV show which over 14 seasons turned Donald Trump into a public figure, contestants scrambled to be the one to hear from the self-declared business genius: “You’re hired”.

But President Trump has not only seen an astonishing haemorrhaging of his White House staff since he took office, but also now finds himself in difficulty trying to fill one of the most prestigious jobs in Washington.

John Kelly, the former marine general, as was expected, is leaving his job as chief of staff after 17 months, having replaced Reince Priebus who had lasted in the post for just over six months. On the same day, 31 July last year, that Kelly was appointed, Anthony Scaramucci was sacked after barely more than a week as communications director. Nineteen days later, Steve Bannon lost his role of chief strategist to the president.

This constant state of upheaval in the Trump White House helps to explain why so many have apparently turned down the chance to replace Kelly. There are, of course, other factors at play: the sheer difficulties of working with Trump, as described by former members of the administration; the potential gridlock promised by the Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives in the midterms; and, of course, the looming shadow of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump was the Moscovian candidate in the US election.

Filling the role of chief of staff is not the only major recruiting problem Trump has faced this year. He had problems finding a legal team to represent him in the Russia investigation after his lawyer John Dowd resigned last March. Trump claimed that “top law firms” were keen to work for him. “Don’t believe the Fake News narrative that it is hard to find a lawyer who wants to take this on,” he tweeted, “Fame & fortune will NEVER be turned down by a lawyer...”

In reality no less than five of these “top law firms” turned down working for Trump, an unprecedented situation for a US president. Some even publicly stated the reason why they declined. “With a figure who is as polarising as the president, it makes the decision about whether to represent him a difficult one,” commented Philip West, the chairman of Washington based Steptoe & Johnson.

Speaking about a Kelly replacement, Trump claimed on Wednesday: “I have at least 10, 12 people who want it badly, I am making a decision. Great people, I could do it immediately. I’m in no rush. A lot of people want it.” Except it seems they do not. Twenty-four hours later this has become five people. But they were “mostly well known ... terrific people”, the president was keen to assure.

Among those who are reported to have rejected the job are treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, economic advisor Larry Kudlow, trade representative Robert Lighthizer, senior Republicans Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mark Meadows as well as Nick Ayers, chief of staff to vice president Mike Pence.

The names being mentioned as candidates for the job at present are those of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, his former deputy campaign manager David Bossie and Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general.

Whitaker had replaced yet another administration casualty, Jeff Sessions, who was sacked by Trump as attorney general because he had recused himself from the Mueller inquiry, and not shut it down as the president and some of his supporters had demanded.

There was immediate suspicion that Whitaker, who had criticised the direction Mueller was taking, would start interfering with the investigation and begin the process of shutting it down by imposing a time limit or curtailing funding. But this has not happened so far. Whitaker, it is said, has become very wary of taking steps which may leave him open to being investigated for obstruction of justice in the future.

It is unclear whether Trump would actually want Whitaker in such a prime position in the White House, and the field may well narrow down to Christie and Kushner.

But there are problems with both the men for more than one reason.

Kushner is under intense scrutiny over his relationship with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman amid reports that he had been advising the Saudi heir to the throne in private phone calls on how to deal with the fallout from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There are also reports, uncorroborated, that Kushner had handed MbS, as the prince is known, a list of his critics in the US. Some Democrats in Congress have said they want to use their control of the House committees to examine the Saudi connections of Trump’s son-in-law.

Kushner is also said to be under investigation himself by Mueller in the Russia inquiry. This particularly concerns a meeting that he, brother-in-law Donald junior and former campaign manager Paul Manafort (who was convicted of fraud in August) apparently had with a group of Russians who had promised to provide dirt on Hilary Clinton at Trump Tower in New York in the run up to the election.

Kushner has appeared at a closed door session of a separate inquiry into the Kremlin connection by the Senate intelligence committee. It was also revealed at the beginning of the year that federal authorities were looking at his ties to Deutsche Bank. Prosecutors requested records regarding a $285m loan the bank gave to the Kushner family real estate company a month before the presidential election.

There is yet another line of inquiry into Kushner, one which gives an interesting insight into his relationship with Chris Christie.

The sacking by Trump of FBI director James Comey is being examined by Mueller as a possible act of obstruction of justice. In Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury – for which Steve Bannon was one of the main sources – comes the claim that Jared Kushner’s father, Charles, lobbied, through his son and daughter-in-law, for the removal of the FBI director because his own family’s business interests were being caught up in the inquiry.

This version, if true, presents the extraordinary scenario that it was not just the president’s daughter and son-in-law (“Jarvanka”, as Bannon called them disparagingly) but the son-in-law’s father who apparently had a say in one of the most crucial and most contentious decisions in recent American history. Wolff alleges that Kushner Sr “channelled through his son and daughter-in-law that the Kushner family [business] dealings were getting wrapped up in the pursuit of Trump”.

The sacking of Comey did not save Kushner’s business interests from being drawn into a federal probe, Bannon told Wolff: “This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose [senior prosecutor Andrew] Weissmann first and he is a money laundering guy. “Their path to f***ing Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr and Jared Kushner ... It’s as plain as a hair on your face ... It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner s***. The Kushner s*** is greasy. They’re going to go right through that. They are going to roll those two guys up and say play me or save me.”

Kushner family history points to why Jared Kushner is highly unlikely to welcome the appointment of Christie as chief of staff.

Charles Kushner, a property developer from a Jewish Polish background, was sentenced in 2005 to two years in prison after pleading guilty to 18 counts of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. He served 14 months of the sentence at the federal penitentiary in Camp Montgomery, Alabama. He had been fined $508,900 the previous year by the Federal Election Commission over the campaign contributions.

The witness tampering charge came from Kushner entrapping his brother-in-law, William Schulder, with a prostitute and then sending a tape to his sister, Esther. This was in retaliation, the court was told, for Schulder cooperating with federal investigators.

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Chris Christie was the US attorney who had sent Charles Kushner to prison. Jared Kushner has been accused of blocking Christie from, so far, holding any senior position in the Trump administration and of then carrying out a purge of Christie’s associates in the Trump team.

The animosity is not one-way: Christie has declared that Kushner’s conduct in the Trump Tower meeting should be examined: “I’m telling you that he deserves the scrutiny because he was involved in the transition and involved in meetings that call into question his role. OK, well then, if he’s innocent of that, then that will come out as Mueller examines all the facts. And if he’s not, that will come out too,” said the New Jersey governor.

Old enmities resurface and old scores will be settled as Donald Trump hunts a chief of staff in an astonishing presidency which has been marked by a toxic mix of bitterness, accusations and recriminations.

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