Nick Ayers, the longstanding favorite to take over as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, is no longer getting the job, according to two White House officials, leaving the president without a clear successor for John Kelly just weeks before he departs.
Ayers, who had been engaged in private negotiations with Trump for months, had widely been considered Kelly’s heir apparent, even by his many detractors in the White House. Some in the West Wing, who just 12 hours earlier were certain Ayers would be Trump’s next chief of staff, privately expressed shock on Sunday evening that he ultimately didn’t get the job.
The president has floated other possible candidates for the position in private conversations with allies in recent weeks, but he had all but settled on Ayers, White House aides said.
In the end, the two men were unable to agree on the terms of Ayers’ service. Ayers, who has young children, had told associates that he hoped to return to his home state of Georgia and could remain in the position only until the spring. Trump, on the other hand, wanted his next chief of staff to commit to serve for two years.
It’s the latest personnel drama in a White House that has suffered from unprecedented staff turnover and backbiting among senior aides. Trump’s previous two chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and Kelly, were subjected to unflattering leaks and constant questions about their status with an often mercurial president, who regularly blamed them for blunders large and small.
With Ayers out of the picture, Trump now faces the challenging task of finding a chief of staff who is both capable of doing the job and, perhaps more important, willing to step into the West Wing hornet’s nest.
Already, three candidates for the job — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — have signaled that they would prefer to stay put, though they could change their minds if the president lobbies them aggressively.
Two White House officials said Trump would make a final decision on his next chief of staff by the end of the year. One of the officials said Trump is considering four candidates, including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a staunch Trump ally. In recent days, the president has been polling advisers and allies on what they think about Meadows.
Another person in the running is acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, according to a Republican close to the White House. Trump has told allies he is very fond of Whitaker, who was among top aides who attended Saturday’s Army-Navy football game with the president.
White House aides cautioned that the short list of candidates was fluid and likely to change in the coming days. They also warned that people close to the president were already pushing their favored candidates, irrespective of whether they are on Trump’s shortlist.
“I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff,” Trump tweeted Sunday evening. “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!”
A person familiar with Mnuchin’s thinking stressed that the secretary is very happy at the Treasury Department and had never asked to be considered for the White House position. Mnuchin feels that he can be most useful to the president continuing to run the department, the source added.
Lighthizer, who is leading trade negotiations with China, is also a potential candidate for the job. But he signaled on Sunday that he is uninterested in leaving his current post.
“I’m entirely focused on what I’m trying to do — and it’s difficult enough,” Lighthizer said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” when asked about a New York Times report that he might be considered for chief of staff, adding that he hadn’t spoken to anybody in the White House about assuming the role.
In recent days, another name for chief of staff has cropped up among Trump’s advisers: Wayne Berman, senior managing director and head of global government affairs at the Blackstone Group. Berman, who served as a top political aide at the Commerce Department under President George H.W. Bush, is close to Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, who remains one of Trump’s closest confidants in the business world.
People close to the White House also mentioned Mulvaney, who has been campaigning quietly for the job for months. But a source close to Mulvaney said he was not interested in the chief-of-staff position. Recently, he has been saying he would be more interested in the top jobs at Commerce or Treasury if that is where the president needed him.
Ayers, who currently serves as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, confirmed in a tweet on Sunday that he would be departing the administration, though he made no mention of the White House chief of staff job.
“Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House,” he wrote. “I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause.”
Ayers, who had previously told White House aides that he planned to step down in December, is leaving the administration to join America First, a Trump-aligned outside group, officials said.
Though he was expected to take the job for only a fixed period of time, Ayers pushed for significant authority during his negotiations with the president — including the ability to hire and fire whomever he wanted even if he did not intend to stay at the White House over a long period of time, said a person familiar with the discussions.
Although Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, supported Ayers’ becoming chief of staff, other senior aides are deeply skeptical of him, arguing that he is a sharp-elbowed ladder climber.
Ayers’ political savvy was considered a major asset heading into a reelection year, but some of his critics worried that he would shirk the nonpolitical parts of the job inside the administration.
Trump and Ayers had been quietly discussing his potential promotion for months. But it took Trump until Saturday to finally push out Kelly, giving Ayers’ enemies more time to make the case to the president that he wasn’t right for the job.
“You give enough time and air to have people shoot at him, and at some point it takes its toll,” said a person familiar with the hiring process.
Trump announced Saturday that Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who served as his chief of staff for a year and a half, would depart by the end of the year.