In two weeks’ time, President Donald Trump will be without a chief of staff following the departure of John Kelly.
And with the surprise decision by Nick Ayers to turn the job down, Trump is left with, roughly, bupkis when it comes to obvious second choices.
There is no denying that fact unless, of course, you are Donald Trump.
“I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff,” he tweeted Sunday night. “Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers, a spectacular person who will always be with our #MAGA agenda. I will be making a decision soon!”
If you believe that this is all going according to plan, then you may have missed the last two years of the Trump presidency. This is a President who freelances, disassembles and denies at every turn. He wanted Ayers. Ayers didn’t want to commit for two years. That’s the story.
But regardless of how we got here, here we are!
So who will Trump’s next chief of staff be? The real truth is that no one knows because a) this a President who tends to wing it and b) everyone expected Ayers to take the job. There is a list of names kicking around, however.
I’ve taken the most oft-mentioned contenders and broken down each one’s chances – based on what we know of Trump, what message choosing that person would send, how much disruption it would cause etc. – below. To be clear: Whether Trump settles on one of these names or not, that person will not likely survive terribly long in the job. Being chief of staff is a difficult gig – President Barack Obama had five in his eight years as president – that is made practically impossible when the President is Donald Trump.
1. Mick Mulvaney
Along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, has been the biggest success story of the Trump administration. His star has risen quickly and he now holds two jobs: He is the head of the Office of Management and Budget and the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Mulvaney is more press-friendly – and skilled in communicating with the press – than Kelly, and is a proven cable TV performer (also unlike Kelly). Both of those traits are major arguments for Mulvaney in the eyes of Trump.
The problem? Mulvaney doesn’t appear to want the job. “He’s not interested in chief of staff,” a source close to Mulvaney told CNN’s Rebecca Buck. “He has been saying for almost two months that he would be more interested in something like Commerce or Treasury, if that’s where the President needed him.”
2. Steve Mnuchin
Mnuchin is one of the few people in the administration that Trump regards if not as his equal than with a measure of respect and admiration. Why? Because Mnuchin made lots and lots of money and is viewed as very bright and successful in the world of finance.
The issue with Mnuchin is that he comes with some baggage and he – and his wife, Louise Linton – have shown something of a tin ear for appearances and politics since coming to Washington. Speaking of politics, Mnuchin is something of a neophyte to campaigns and elections, a trait that Trump had reportedly grown weary of in Kelly. Does the President really want a political n00b as his top adviser as he prepares to run for reelection in 2020?
3. Mark Meadows
Meadows, the North Carolina congressman and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, is the most Trump-y of all the potential chief of staff candidates – and would likely cause the most controversy if picked. (Like I said, the most Trump-y.) Meadows is not terribly well-liked by House members – even (and maybe especially) Republicans. To the extent that the chief of staff’s job is serve as a sort of liaison or bridge between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Meadows could struggle.
But if the job is primarily to provide an ear to listen to Trump – and to agree with him and his approach – then Meadows could be the right pick.
This debate could be immaterial because Meadows is reportedly telling associates “absolutely not” when it comes to the chief of staff job, according to CNN’s Jeff Zeleny.
4. Robert Lighthizer
If you don’t know the name, you can be forgiven: The US trade representative is not exactly a high-profile figure in political Washington. But Lighthizer is an old hand (he’s 71) who has a pedigree of having worked with then-President Ronald Reagan – and Trump likes that. He also likely maintains solid contact among Senate Republicans from his time as chief of staff at the Senate Finance Committee under Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kans.).
Lighthizer’s tendency to avoid the limelight could be, weirdly, a strike against him in the world of Trump. Trump likes his top staffers out on TV making the case for him, selling the Trump brand at all times. Would an old Washington behind-the-scenes hand really fit the Trump model?
The bottom line
It is possible, of course, that Trump picks none of these people, none of these people want the job if picked and/or Trump can’t convince any of them to take the job. Which, in and of itself, is remarkable. The job of White House chief of staff has long been one of the most prestigious and powerful gigs in Washington. Hell, Rahm Emanuel resigned as a member of Congress to take the job as Barack Obama’s chief of staff!
Because Trump is Trump – unpredictable, never satisfied and a big fan of scapegoating – the job of being the man (or woman) next to the man has been considerably devalued. Yet another presidential norm that Donald Trump has broken.