The surprise news that Nick Ayers declined Trump’s job offer underscores how a once all-powerful West Wing post has become ‘mission impossible.’
For decades, the job of White House chief of staff was once among Washington’s most desirable jobs — a pinnacle of access and power. Like so many other things in the White House, President Donald Trump has changed that.
On Sunday evening, the vice president’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, who had been the leading candidate to succeed outgoing White House chief of staff John Kelly, took himself out of the running.
Ayers, who is only 36, is a savvy political operative wired with GOP donors and party leaders, and friends say he hopes to run for office himself one day. In any ordinary White House, the job he is declining — for what he calls family reasons — would be an ambitious insider’s dream. To take two recent examples: Rahm Emanuel, who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama, went on to serve as mayor of Chicago, and Leon Panetta, who spent two and a half years in the job under President Bill Clinton, served as CIA chief and Secretary of Defense.
It’s a different story under Trump. 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.
“You really do have to wonder why anybody would want to be Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff given that so far it’s been mission impossible,” said Chris Whipple, the author of a history of White House chiefs of staff.
“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,” Whipple added, referring to the chief-of-staff to President Richard Nixon who ended up serving 18 months behind bars.
Trump officially declared the chief of staff job open on Saturday when he announced that Kelly, a retired Marine general whom Trump often suspected of trying to constrain him, would leave his post by the end of the month. But while he is considering several candidates — including Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — he has no obvious second choice, according to two people close to the White House.
Republican sources also said the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, is another possible candidate.
Mnuchin, for one, isn’t eager to take the post, according to a person close to him — but others in Trump’s orbit aren’t so sure. While other candidates, like Meadows, are more eager, it is unclear how interested Trump is in offering it to them.
Ayers had worked over the past month to negotiate a short-term tenure in which he would serve only until spring, in part hoping to avoid the kind of snarky speculation Priebus and Kelly suffered about their expected life spans in the job.
Kelly endured it for months before reaching an agreement with Trump that he would depart at the end of the year, even though Kelly had assured his staff in July that he would stay in the job through the 2020 election.
Trump had recently stopped speaking to Kelly, and instructed several White House aides to work through Ayers. Even so, Trump praised Kelly briefly on Saturday, thanking him for his tenure and calling him a “great guy,” but more fulsome praise came from Republicans on Capitol Hill who seemed to acknowledge his unenviable position.
“John Kelly is a patriot,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “He was a force for order, clarity, and good sense. He is departing what is often a thankless job, but John Kelly has my eternal gratitude.”
Friends say Ayers wants to return home to Georgia, and that he is interested in seeking public office there. He has nearly done so once already, when he seriously contemplated a 2018 bid for Georgia governor. Ayers mapped out detailed plans for a campaign, only to make a sudden decision to instead join the administration as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff several months into the administration.
He announced his forthcoming departure from the White House on Sunday in tweet, writing: “Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House. I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause…”
For now, Ayers is expected to return to America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC he helped to lead before taking the Pence job. The organization is expected to play a major role in the 2020 campaign, and Ayers enjoys close relationships with major GOP donors who are likely to be funding the super PAC.
“I think the world of Nick Ayers,” said Tommy Hicks, who chairs America First.
Fellow Republicans said they understood Ayers’ decision given the pitfalls of working at the side of a controversial and volatile president.
“I get it,” said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi-based Republican lobbyist who knows Ayers. “He’s enhanced his stature working at the White House and positioned himself to go home and think about the future.”