That’s what happens when Plan A falls apart and no one has a Plan B at the ready. So says the Washington Post about the decision by Nick Ayers to turn down the chance to replace outgoing chief of staff John Kelly, reportedly blindsiding Donald Trump and leaving him with more chaos in the White House as the year winds down. Now there is no front-runner for the job, and CNN’s sources say Trump isn’t having a happy holiday season:
President Trump is “super pissed” after his top pick Nick Ayers turned down the White House chief of staff job, according to multiple sources familiar with Trump’s mood https://t.co/Lyxk2VaroK pic.twitter.com/UjADEZGVDl
— CNN (@CNN) December 11, 2018
Multiple sources familiar with Trump’s mood told CNN he’s frustrated with the Ayers process. One source described his mood as “super pissed.” A second added he feels humiliated, a position he doesn’t like to be in, because the President did not have a backup candidate prepared like he typically does when he’s fielding people for jobs. …
Trump has privately told confidants he wants his new chief of staff to shift the goals of the West Wing away from legislation and toward politics, sources said. He did not outline specific things he wanted Ayers to change in the West Wing, but was generally relying on the politically savvy young aide to make changes on his own that could bolster the White House ahead of what is expected to be a tumultuous year.
Trump has remarked on several occasions that his West Wing needs aides who are more politically adept. That problem is only exacerbated by the departures of two White House aides in recent days: the political director Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, the director of the office of public liaison. Both are leaving the administration to work on Trump’s re-election campaign.
And multiple White House officials have complained privately that Shahira Knight, the legislative affairs director, is more focused on the policy than navigating the political realities of Washington, including managing relationships with lawmakers.
That’s actually not a bad position for an incoming chief of staff to have, as difficult as the job might be. That would allow him or her to bring in their own people into those positions, something that a more political rather than policy-oriented actor would appreciate. In any White House, that would guard against palace revolts and challenges to authority by making the CoS even more indispensable, but likely even more so in this White House.
Trump himself tried pre-butting this line of reporting, tweeting out that ten or more people are vying for the job of chief of staff:
Fake News has it purposely wrong. Many, over ten, are vying for and wanting the White House Chief of Staff position. Why wouldn’t someone want one of the truly great and meaningful jobs in Washington. Please report news correctly. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 11, 2018
One possible suitor might be Chris Christie. His name recently came up, albeit briefly, as a successor to Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. It would be tough to see how Christie would have survived a Senate confirmation for that spot, with both Bridgegate and his role on the Trump campaign, but CoS doesn’t require Senate confirmation anyway. Christie landed on the New York Times’ list of potential candidates:
As the president hastily restarted the search process, speculation focused on a group that was led by Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is the hard-edge chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, but also included the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin; Mr. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney; and the United States trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.
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. And some Trump allies were pushing for David N. Bossie, the deputy campaign manager in 2016.
Bossie might have been a good choice before his “cotton-picking mind” comment on Fox News, which earned him a suspension as contributor in June. Bossie apologized, but it didn’t help that Bossie used it in a discussion of whether the Trump White House had a problem with, er, racial insensitivity. Picking Bossie would put that issue front and center in all media outlets for his entire tenure, not exactly what you want when choosing an election-cycle consigliere. Trump might put up with that if Bossie is his only option, but Trump claims that he’s getting a lot of enthusiastic interest in the job.
Christie wouldn’t be a bad choice, at least on paper. He’s been a chief executive for two terms as a Republican in a blue state and has the necessary political skills to navigate Trumpland as well as the Beltway. He gets along with Trump, which is also important, especially in this administration. The problem with Christie might be more personal:
There continues to be bad blood between Christie and the President’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner. As US attorney in 2004, Christie prosecuted Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions. Charles Kushner pleaded guilty and served two years in prison. It’s hard to imagine Kushner reporting directly to Christie.
Hmmm. Depending on what happens with Mueller, of course, this might not be a problem for much longer anyway. Even apart from that, Kushner’s partnership with Mohammed bin Salman on a comprehensive Middle East peace plan is in tatters after the Saudi assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, whose murder inspired Time Magazine to name threatened journalists as their Person of the Year today. Unless that turns around quickly, there may not be much reason to keep Kushner in the White House except as a family visitor. A Christie appointment might signal that change.
If Trump wants to go to war, though, Mark Meadows would be a better choice, as I write in my column at The Week:
For his next chief of staff, Trump might have a limited range of contenders. Even so, his choice will reflect how Trump sees the next two years as he approaches his re-election campaign. Does he look for an opportunity to partner with Democrats on a few key issues to demonstrate his flexibility? Or does he go all-in on gridlock to force voters to choose the nation’s direction?
If it’s the latter, tapping Meadows would make some sense for Trump. Taking the job would make sense for Meadows, too: Now that Republicans have lost control of the House, the Freedom Caucus will have much less influence on the shape of legislation and policy, so there’s little reason for Meadows to stick around. The GOP’s leverage will come from the Senate rather than in the House’s conservative caucus, and Meadows will have much more power as chief of staff. If Trump wants to set up the next two years as a political fight for the 2020 election, Meadows would bring the necessary hard-ball approach.
But if Trump wants to find ways to reach accommodations with Democrats on issues like infrastructure and health care, Meadows won’t be much help. Trump would be better off looking for a moderate Republican, perhaps one who retired from the House or Senate, or lost last month in the midterms. The big question is whether a moderate Republican would want to work in the political cauldron of Trump’s White House — and whether he or she would last long enough in that crucible.
That’s where Christie might work out best — he has few other options for returning to national politics.