President Donald Trump said Saturday that his chief of staff, John Kelly, would step down by the end of the year, the latest move in a long-planned staff shake-up as the president heads into the 2020 campaign facing growing peril from the special counsel and newly empowered Democrats.
The departure of Kelly, who had been brought in last year to impose order on the West Wing but found managing Trump an impossible task, had been rumored for months, and Trump announced it to reporters before departing for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. He said a replacement would be named in the next day or two.
John Kelly will be leaving — I don’t know if I can say ‘retiring,’” the president said. “But he’s a great guy. John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year.”
Trump has settled on Nick Ayers, a youthful but experienced political operative who serves as chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, as his top choice to replace Kelly, people familiar with the matter said. In Ayers, Trump sees what Kelly, a career military officer, was not: a wily political operative whose focus would be on politics and campaigning as the president looks toward his re-election bid.
But Ayers, 36, who has young children and wants to return home to Georgia with his family, has so far agreed to serve only through the spring. Trump, who does not want more turnover, is pressing Ayers to agree to a more permanent stay, those familiar with the discussions said.
If the president ultimately turns to another candidate, potential choices include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; his budget director, Mick Mulvaney; and the U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.
If Ayers accepts the job, his appointment would be seen inside the White House as a coup for Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who clashed with Kelly and are seen as close to Ayers.
Kelly, who did not show up for work Friday, met with Trump that evening in the White House residence, just before a senior staff dinner, to hash out the details of his departure, according to people familiar with the meeting. Pence and Ayers also attended.