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At the White House

WANTED, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: After months of speculation, we can finally retire the “John Kelly is departing the White House” genre of stories. Trump told reporters over the weekend the retired Marine Corps general will exit the White House by the end of the year.

Kelly's heir apparent, Vice President Pence’s Chief of Staff Nick Ayers, backed out of the gig on Sunday. The Wall Street Journal's Michael Bender and Peter Nicholas first reported the news that Ayers would also be exiting the administration by the new year. Trump and Ayers confirmed the reporting on Twitter, with Trump tweeting that “Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers” who would replace Kelly. 

Kelly's successor will have a daunting task given the mountain of problems facing Trump in the new year: House Democrats with subpoena power; the Mueller probe; a potentially flagging economy — and of course, the beginnings of a 2020 reelection campaign. Neither Kelly nor his predecessor, Reince Priebus, were able to persistently keep order in the White House by managing an impulsive president, predisposed to chaos, who relies on his instincts above all else.  

The Contenders: 

1. Mark Meadows: The North Carolina congressman is co-chair of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus. He also will find himself suddenly in the minority when Republicans cede the House majority in January, but his insider knowledge of how Congress works given Democrats' apparent investigatory zeal could certainly be helpful. Conversely, he's been one of the most outspoken voices against Trump's tariffs.

  • “ Mr. Meadows, for instance, could still aid Mr. Trump in the coming political battle with congressional leaders, despite his own frayed relationships on Capitol Hill. Weeks ago, Mr. Trump started asking people what they would think of Mr. Meadows, a fierce supporter of the president, as a chief of staff, before moving on to Mr. Ayers,” per the New York Times's Maggie Haberman. 
  • “ [Meadows] checks all the boxes. Only knock on him is enemies he’s made on the Hill,” a former White House staffer texted when asked who their choice of chief of staff would be. ​​​​​​

2. Robert Lighthizer: Trump's U.S. trade representative, a China hard-liner, was just tapped by Trump to lead trade negotiations with Beijing, creating a “reluctance to move Lighthizer into the role because he is integral to negotiations with China over trade, " The Post's Felicia Sonmez, Josh Dawsey and Damian Paletta report

3. Matt Whitaker: The current acting attorney general received criticism for publicly stating his opposition to the Russia investigation, a position that only helps his standing and chances with Trump. He attended the Army-Navy football game on Saturday with Trump and other top aides.

  • Trump didn't seem happy with the backlash to Whitaker's installment as acting AG. The president last week announced he is nominating William Barr, a former AG under George H.W. Bush, to the permanent role.
  • Whitaker's background might not withstand prolonged scrutiny. House and Senate Democrats released a letter last week asking why Whitaker's ethics review was still incomplete over a year after joining the Justice Department. The Post has also reported extensively on Whitaker's involvement with a potentially fraudulent business against which the Federal Trade Commission has filed a complaint.

3. Mick Mulvaney: The former South Carolina congressman juggling a job as director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is well-liked and a favorite among White House staff.  

  • Mulvaney, who was under consideration to replace Kelly at the beginning of the year after Kelly allowed then-staff secretary Rob Porter to stay in the White House following accusations of domestic violence, has strong ties to the Hill. He has also fiercely defended Trump's budget policy. But it's unclear whether he actually wants the job. 

4. Dave Bossie: “ . . . some Trump allies were pushing for David N. Bossie, the deputy campaign manager in 2016,” reports the NYT's Haberman. Bossie, also a staunch Trump loyalist who served as his deputy campaign manager, has a long-running relationship with the president and has the added benefit of experience waging investigative warfare against the Clinton administration in the 90s. 

5. Chris Christie: “Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who as a onetime United States attorney could help Mr. Trump in an impeachment fight, was also being mentioned,” per Haberman. 

Wildcard: A former White House staffer suggested that a Trump ally “who has nothing to lose, is older, and independently wealthy” might be best suited to replace Kelly. 

  • P.S.: Who will replace Ayers as Pence's chief of staff? 

Various contenders sent out smoke signals by the hour on Sunday night that they were no longer interested in the job as the reality of being able to successfully manage the unmanageable set in:   

  • Key caveat: “Another senior administration official said that Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have both expressed internally that they aren’t seeking the job but could change their minds if Trump pleads with them,” The Post reported. 
  • And later on Sunday night, Politico’s Nancy Cook reported that Mulvaney, Mnuchin and Lighthizer had taken themselves out of the running.  

Resume?: Outside of a warm body, remains unclear what Trump is even looking for in his third chief of staff. Some comments from the president illuminate his leanings toward “simply picking someone he personally liked,” as Haberman reported. Or, toward having "fun," per The Post. 

  • LOL: “The great irony, current and former aides said, is that Trump hired Kelly because he said the Marine general could bring order to the White House. But in recent months, Trump had begun calling Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff, more often. And he said he missed having fun,” The Post reported. 
  • More from The Post: “In recent times, the president has often spent only six or seven hours in the Oval Office daily, instead preferring to be in the residence, where he can do as he pleases. Kelly told others that the less time Trump spent in the Oval Office some days, the better.”

Today, Trump doesn't have anything on his public schedule except a lunch with Pence.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S DEFENDERS: As the special counsel’s investigation racks up indictments, and with evidence of contact between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign mounting, the administration’s allies are rallying to his defense. Making the rounds on the Sunday shows, top Republicans were “brushing aside new court filings that detail previously unreported contacts between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign and directly implicate the president in plans to buy women’s silence,” reported The Post’s Felicia Sonmez and Ariana Eunjung Cha.

  • Going bananas: “We’re going to become a banana republic, where every president gets prosecuted and every president gets thrown in jail when they’re done with office,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” warning against the aggressive prosecution of campaign finance violations like the ones of which Michael Cohen is accused.
  • Nothing to see here: Paul added there was nothing improper about Trump’s pursuit of building a hotel in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. “This is pretty common, and I see no problem with someone running for president trying to build a hotel somewhere,” he said, even though experts note the complexity of Trump’s business dealings is very unusual.
  • Big defense from ‘Little Marco’: “There’s no reason to not stand by anybody in this moment,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” emphasizing “the right of someone to argue that the evidence is not what you say it is.”
  • Marching orders: “The White House is looking to its hard-right supporters on Capitol Hill to serve as its political flank, in particular House Republicans such as [Meadows], Jim Jordan (Ohio), and Devin Nunes (Calif.), who are frequent guests on Fox News Channel” and will likely be the “public faces of the Trump defense and antagonists of the Justice Department’s leadership,” The Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker reported.
  • Newt so fast: “This isn’t a crisis moment for Trump or the party,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told Costa and Rucker. “Remember, we thought we had Clinton on the ropes, but Clinton kept smiling and his popularity went up.”
 

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On The Hill

FIGHTING FOR 15, ONE INTERNSHIP AT A TIME: In one fell tweet (along with the 13,000 retweets and 91,000 likes that followed), Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) shifted the paradigm on the perennial Capitol Hill problem of unpaid interns. “Time to walk the walk,” she wrote. “Very few members of Congress actually pay their interns. We will be one of them.” A torrent of social media praise ensued, but it was the institutional response that was, perhaps, most impressive, as the newly elected lawmaker forced the hands of her more established colleagues. The Post’s Elise Viebeck reported on the newcomers’ immediate impact:

  • ‘Often white, moneyed and with connections’: “Congress performs terribly on metrics related to staff diversity, workplace protections and employee pay and benefits,” Viebeck wrote. “Advocates warn that the system is built to accept only the most privileged young people — often white, moneyed and with connections — who later fill the pipeline for Washington’s political and business establishment.”
  • By the numbers: Just 4 percent of House Democrats and 31 percent of Senate Democrats pay their interns, a study by D.C. nonprofit Pay Our Interns showed. Among Republicans, 8 percent of House lawmakers and 51 percent of senators offer paid internships.
  • The pressure on veteran lawmakers was most clear last week when Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) caught swift blowback for offering unpaid winter internships. Under pressure, his office said the posting was a mistake and they’d pay some interns starting in January.
  • Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) do not currently pay their interns, though Gillibrand’s office said it’ll begin offering needs-based stipends in January and Klobuchar said she’d start paying all interns Jan. 1. 
  • Key quote: “Ocasio-Cortez isn’t a conventional politician, so she’s talking about things that nobody would ever talk about otherwise. And it feels like a breath of fresh air because it is one,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress.

WHAT'S UP WITH MITCH MCCONNELL: The Post's Paul Kane reports that Republicans supporting a bipartisan criminal justice bill have a message for the Senate majority leader who has told Trump there's not enough time to take up the bill: “It’s now or, most likely, never.” 

  • New year, new House majority: “These Republicans warn the wait-till-next-year attitude would break apart their narrowly threaded bipartisan coalition. Democrats will take over the House on Jan. 3 and will understandably demand new concessions that would likely cause Republicans to back away from the deal.”
  • “I think the terrain changes drastically next year, so you have to find a way to get it done this year,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a prominent supporter of the bill. “I think the Democrats will want to add things on that will probably be poisoning pills to Republicans.”
  • Some Republicans believe the votes are there: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who has worked with Durbin for years on the bill, said he already has a majority of Republicans ready to vote yes. “I have personally counted 26 Republicans, 26 Republicans who have said, ‘I will vote for this bill,’ if you put it on the floor right now,” he said at the Post Live event.
    • "[Sen. Chuck] Grassley (R-Iowa) thinks he could almost get 30 GOP votes for the bill. Coupled with an estimated 45 or more Democratic votes, the legislation sits on the cusp of almost 80 votes.”
  • Trump can do more: “But there’s also the lingering feeling that Trump has not put his full weight into the issue. At Friday’s rally, he devoted much more time to his demands for a border wall than he did to the criminal justice overhaul.”

In the Media

Viral

Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi's apparent last words: "I can't breathe" :