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Troubles past and future hinder Trump's search for a new White House chief of staff

Troubles past and future hinder Trump's search for a new White House chief of staff
Vice President Mike Pence, left, attends a meeting in Georgia last year with his chief of staff, Nick Ayers. (Zurab Kurtsikidze / Associated Press)

President Trump’s troubled search for his third chief of staff reflects the sharp decline in power and appeal of a job that long was among the most prestigious in politics — either the capstone for a prominent career or a launching point for one.

But as with so much Trump touches, he has changed that calculus.

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The disruptive president has made clear he prefers to operate as his own chief of staff, rebuffing attempts to streamline White House communications and decision-making as he goes his own way. That makes filling the high-profile post especially difficult.

Both Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, and his replacement, John F. Kelly, were mauled by the experience, battered and belittled as frequent targets of Trump’s ire. Trump announced Saturday that Kelly “will be leaving — I don’t know if I can say ‘retiring’ ” at the end of the year.

“Both have been humiliated publicly,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a researcher at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who studies White House staffing issues. “The position under Trump will never be what it was with other administrations, given his impulsiveness and inability to delegate to others.”

The chief of staff, a political appointment that does not require Senate approval, traditionally serves as gatekeeper to the Oval Office and enforcer for the White House staff as it tries to deliver on the president’s legislative and political agenda.

Over the decades — President Truman first appointed a senior deputy in 1946 — the job has drawn officials with stature.

“Trump simply hasn’t turned in those directions because of how unusual and how different he is,” said David Gergen, a top advisor to presidents in both parties since Richard Nixon in the 1970s. “He’s his own chief of staff, just like he’s his own secretary of State and his own Treasury secretary.”

Gergen said it was surprising Trump would let Kelly go without a replacement ready while the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has the potential to inflict great damage on the president.

“To have a lame-duck chief of staff who will be out the door trying to manage the response and counterattack will be very difficult,” he said.

Under Trump, however, the chief of staff’s job has become “pointless, an exercise in futility,” said a former White House official.

“No rational qualified person would jeopardize their reputation,” said the former official, who requested anonymity to avoid upsetting his employer and relationships in the administration. “And you just can’t manage” Trump.

Trump’s first choice to replace Kelly, Nick Ayers, abruptly withdrew his name over the weekend and will leave the White House to return to his home in Georgia and work on Trump’s reelection campaign.

Since Ayers is chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, his impending departure — as well as Kelly’s — will leave two gaping holes near the top of the White House lineup, portending further turmoil in an administration that already has seen record-breaking staff turnover.

Ayers’ appointment had appeared so certain that aides prepared an official news release last week, according to a White House official who asked for anonymity to discuss internal planning. Trump also alerted Pence to the plan.

The official said Ayers worried about the growing threat to Trump from the investigation led by Mueller and a related federal inquiry in Manhattan, which last week said Trump — identified as Individual 1 — had directed an illegal scheme to pay hush money during the 2016 election.

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“Ayers didn’t want to be chief of staff to Individual 1 and get walked all over once Kelly left,” the official said.

Ayers told Trump he would take the job for a few months, but Trump wanted him to remain until the 2020 election, according to another White House official who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Normally, an ambitious operative like Ayers, who is 36 years old, would have jumped at the chance to be White House chief of staff, historically a career builder that has catapulted powerful officials into even more powerful positions.

After serving as President Reagan's chief of staff, James A. Baker III went on to serve as Treasury secretary and then, under President George H.W. Bush, as secretary of State before he returned for a second stint as chief of staff.

Leon E. Panetta, chief of staff under President Clinton, later led the CIA and then the Pentagon under President Obama. And Rahm Emanuel, who left a seat in Congress to serve as Obama's first chief of staff, later was elected twice as mayor of Chicago.

People close to Trump and the White House floated a variety of potential replacements for Kelly on Monday.

They included Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina GOP firebrand who has been close to Trump; Steven T. Mnuchin, Trump’s loyal Treasury secretary; Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget chief who also did fill-in work running the federal consumer agency; Matthew Whitaker, who is currently the acting attorney general; and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has long sought a position in the Trump administration. Other names might also emerge.

On Capitol Hill, Meadows told reporters that although he spoke with Trump regularly, he had not talked with him in the 24 hours after Ayers withdrew. He was noncommittal on whether he would accept the job if offered, calling himself honored to be considered.

“I think any job that is difficult and hard, the fun has to be in what you accomplish, not in the day to day,” he said.

Kelly was hired in July 2017 to impose order and structure after Priebus proved unable to tame the chaotic information flow coming to the president or restrict the impromptu visits of staffers from across the administration hierarchy.

But Kelly struggled to tell Trump hard truths, to limit his late-night phone calls to informal outside advisors who had their own agendas, or to rein in explosive tweets and impulsive orders.

No one in the White House expects an empowered replacement for Kelly, given Trump's demand to remain the focal point. One of the White House officials said the new chief of staff should function as a top political strategist before correcting herself to say Trump would always be No. 1 and that whoever took the job could be his assistant.

“The president’s always his [own] chief strategist,” the official said.

Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Trump’s top communications official and was fired by Kelly in July 2017, told CNN that Kelly’s lack of personal respect for Trump had hampered him in the job.

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“I want the next chief of staff to be somebody that really likes the president,” Scaramucci said. It’s not enough, he added, to believe “I’m serving the country, but I don’t really like the president.”

Kelly, like many who work for Trump, saw his own reputation diminished as he defended Trump’s behavior and rhetoric while the president did little to back him up in public. Kelly’s replacement also will have to contend with the Mueller investigation — and Trump’s tweets.

“Democrats can’t find a Smocking Gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia… No Smocking Gun … No Collusion,” Trump tweeted Monday, provoking a counter-storm of social media mocking his twice misspelling “smoking.”

But the struggle to replace Kelly reflects a bigger problem for Trump, who enters his third year in office battling a federal investigation, a Democratic House expected to launch other probes and a trade war with China that has sent stock markets into a swoon.

And anyone considering the job knows Trump’s last two chiefs of staff were hardly happy in their work. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, moaned that working for Trump was the worst job he’d ever had.

“Recruitment for White House jobs gets more difficult over time, once the post-election glow fades and the first-stringers leave,” said Tenpas, the Brookings scholar. “With Trump, that whole process is magnified tenfold, especially with the chief of staff job because of what’s happened already.

“Why would someone take a job like that when they've seen two other people fail?” she said.

Times staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

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