The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nick Ayers, Trump’s once-likely replacement for chief of staff John Kelly, won’t take the job

Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence's current chief of staff, is no longer in the running to succeed President Trump's outgoing chief of staff John Kelly. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump’s top pick to be his next chief of staff, Nick Ayers, will not take the job and instead leave the White House at the end of the year, reopening negotiations over who will succeed the departing John F. Kelly.

At least four other candidates are now believed to be in the running to direct Trump’s White House, administration officials said Sunday. Ayers, a longtime operative who is Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, said in a tweet that after departing he “will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause.”

“Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House,” he said.

Despite numerous senior administration officials saying Ayers was on the verge of securing the post, Trump sought to play down that possibility late Sunday and said he is already meeting with other candidates.

"I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff," he tweeted, adding: "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!" 

Trump’s new list of potential chiefs includes Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who is also acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, according to a White House official.

Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker and Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer were also said to be under consideration. But a senior administration official, who spoke privately and was not authorized to discuss the talks, said there was reluctance to move Lighthizer into the role because he is integral to negotiations with China over trade.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will be leaving his role in the coming months. Here's a look back at his tumultuous tenure. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Joyce Koh, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Sources said Ayers would work with the super PAC set up to assist the president’s reelection campaign. News that Ayers would not take the chief of staff job was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Trump had previously spoken with Ayers about the top administration job and had settled on him as Kelly’s likely replacement, the president’s advisers said.

But Ayers, who has young children, had insisted on serving temporarily, which frustrated Trump, who had wanted a replacement to stay on through 2020.

Ayers was also skeptical of taking the job based on the challenges that Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, faced in the position, and talks between the two sides broke down, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

Ayers, 36, also had faced opposition among many senior White House aides, who worried that his elevation could trigger departures of other high-level staff members.

After initially agreeing that Kelly would announce his departure on Monday, Trump abruptly shifted course and announced Saturday that Kelly would leave the White House by the end of the year. The position might be filled on an interim basis, he added then.

That announcement closed out Kelly’s rocky tenure and ushered in a second straight messy chief-of-staff handover for the president, for whom the next pick will be the third to take on the daunting job in less than three years. Last year, Trump took to Twitter to announce Priebus’s departure and Kelly’s arrival while aboard Air Force One, his outgoing top administrator having just left the plane.

With House Republicans poised to return to the minority in the next Congress following their party’s midterm defeat, Meadows could find the chief of staff position an appealing one. His rise to the job would signal anew that Trump’s response to the November drubbing is to move further to the right, rather than toward negotiations with the ascendant Democrats.

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.

Kelly, a four-star general who previously served as homeland security secretary, has been lauded by current and former aides who say he brought order to the West Wing. But he has at times clashed with Trump, who openly voiced his frustration with Kelly for months.

Kelly struggled to corral the various factions in the White House, including members of Trump’s family, and was criticized by the president as lacking political skills — an increasing concern heading into the president’s 2020 reelection campaign.

Ayers, a longtime operative who was previously the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, had been viewed as a candidate well positioned to fill that gap, even as he had alienated some members of the staff.

As news broke Sunday night that Ayers would not take the position, prompting renewed attention on the tumult in the White House, Trump made no mention of his chief-of-staff search and instead sought to shift the focus to his administration’s successes.

“The Trump Administration has accomplished more than any other U.S. Administration in its first two (not even) years of existence, & we are having a great time doing it!” he said in a tweet. He offered no specifics.

He followed up with a swipe at his favorite target, the “Fake News Media,” which he said has “gone totally out of its mind-truly the Enemy of the People!”

Pence, meanwhile, wished Ayers well and said in a tweet that he would “always be grateful for his friendship, dedication to the @VP team and his efforts to advance the @POTUS agenda.”

He also thanked Kelly, who he said had served the administration “with great distinction.”