Makes sense for Meadows, less so for Trump.
What’s happening: Trump has asked confidants what they think about the idea of installing Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, as John Kelly’s permanent replacement, according to these three sources. Trump has also mentioned three other candidates besides Meadows, according to a source with direct knowledge. I don’t yet have their names.
Being chief of staff to Trump is so thankless (and increasingly risky) a job that to consider it you’d need to be momentarily out of career options. That’s Meadows. For years he’s enjoyed a modicum of veto power over the House majority’s agenda as head of the Freedom Caucus. As of last month, that’s up in smoke. He’ll be leading a small minority of the House minority next year, rendering him all but irrelevant politically. Who knows how much longer the Freedom Caucus will even last? It grew out of the tea party preaching fiscal conservatism, but just as rank-and-file tea partiers dropped that mission to take up the cause of all things Trump instead, the Freedom Caucus seems to spend most of its time nowadays complaining about Rod Rosenstein and Russiagate. Meadows making the switch from small-governor firebrand to Trump’s top lackey would be perfect symbolism. Now that the Freedom Caucus is safely ignorable, it’s an attractive option for him.
I don’t know what Trump gets out of it, though. The job of chief of staff, ostensibly, is to advance the president’s agenda. If Trump wants to broker some deals with Pelosi and McConnell, a right-wing stalwart from the House is one of the worst people he could choose. Pelosi will disdain Meadows on ideological grounds, McConnell will disdain him for having been a thorn in the side of House leadership for years. Meadows doesn’t even offer much of a conservative imprimatur for centrist actions Trump might take, like, say, agreeing to a deal on immigration involving a DREAM amnesty. Which right-winger is going to hate that deal until he finds out that Mark Meadows supports it and then decide, well, if Meadows likes it then it must be okay? The only way Meadows makes sense is if Trump has already resolved that there won’t be any deals over the next two years and that he might as well continue to stroke his base by appointing people they like. Which isn’t the craziest approach, especially after Mueller’s filings on Friday. The worse things get legally for POTUS, the less likely Democrats will be to compromise with him on anything. If impeachment is coming, Trump might as well have a committed right-winger as chief by his side.
In the end he might have no choice but to appoint Meadows. No one with any sort of alternative would accept this garbage job.
NEW: A source close to Mulvaney tells me he is no longer interested in COS job, Mnuchin and Lighthizer sending out same signals…. list of potential replacements for Kelly shrinking by the hour.
— Nancy Cook (@nancook) December 10, 2018
A job that was once a ticket to Washington royalty has recently become a laughing stock. Trump’s first two top aides, Kelly and Reince Priebus before him, have left as diminished and arguably humiliated figures, unable to control the wild chaos of this president’s White House. Priebus was marginalized and mocked before he was abandoned on an airport tarmac. Kelly was subjected to analyses of his facial expressions during awkward moments, repeatedly threatened to quit, and wasn’t even allowed to announce his own resignation despite a reported agreement with Trump that he could do so…
“This White House is headed into a world of trouble — a Democratic Congress, Mueller closing in, and anybody who comes into this White House has to be thinking about lawyering up. Worst case scenario you could become H.R. Haldeman,” [historian Chris] Whipple added, referring to the chief-of-staff to President Richard Nixon who ended up serving 18 months behind bars.
To grasp how noxious this position has become under Trump, particularly in light of his legal troubles, consider that Nick Ayers wouldn’t commit to a two-year-stint in the role even though chief of staff to the president is basically the equivalent of a Supreme Court appointment for a member of the consultant class. Ayers is just 36 years old and was offered the role of the most powerful aide to the most powerful man in the world, but that position now comes with so much baggage — Trump screaming at you, ignoring your advice, blaming you as circumstances require, and maaaaaybe getting you indicted — that Ayers wouldn’t bite. And it’s not as though he’s un-ambitious; precisely the opposite. He refused the job, very simply, because being chief of staff to President Trump is more of a career liability at this point than an asset. Think about that.
Another name being kicked around today besides Meadows’s is acting AG Matt Whitaker. The White House is looking at him, Politico confirms, even though Whitaker would be a strange choice for the job. The chief of staff ideally has longstanding relationships with members of Congress which he can leverage to help move the president’s agenda. Whitaker is a former U.S. Attorney who’s spent only a bit more than a year in Washington, first as Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff and then as his replacement. He’d be an even more random pick for Trump’s chief of staff than he was for Sessions. But if in fact the window for deals on Trump’s presidency has already closed then it doesn’t much matter who Trump appoints. He might as well choose Whitaker, whom he likes personally. And Whitaker would surely accept. What’s he going to do career-wise once Bill Barr takes over? “Chief of staff to the president,” even one as unmanageable as Trump, is better than hot-tub salesman.
Exit quotation: “With a head of blond hair, Mr. Ayers somewhat resembles Mr. Trump in his younger days, a fact that the president often looks for as a positive signal.”