- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2018

President Trump was close to naming a new White House chief of staff Sunday to replace the departing John F. Kelly, as the president braces for the culmination of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, a new Democratic House majority and the 2020 re-election campaign.

The president announced Saturday that the embattled Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who has served in the post since July 2017, will leave by the end of this month. He started in the administration as Homeland Security secretary, and clashed with other presidential advisers as he sought to bring more discipline to the West Wing.

“He’s been with me almost two years now, as you know, between the two positions,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “I appreciate his service very much.”

Mr. Kelly’s departure is part of a broader year-end staff reshuffling that includes the nomination of William P. Barr as attorney general, and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to become ambassador to the United Nations.

The president said his replacement for Mr. Kelly might serve on an interim basis and wanted Nick Ayers, the 36-year-old chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.

But Mr. Ayers said Sunday he was out of the running for the job, saying he “will be departing at the end of the year” and thanking Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence “for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House.” The Wall Street Journal reported that he and Mr. Trump couldn’t agree on a length of service for the chief of staff job.

Insiders say another potential candidate is Mick Mulvaney, the current director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Among those supporting Mr. Ayers for the job are presidential advisers Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

Mr. Trump said he will announce his choice within a few days.

While Mr. Kelly’s departure has been long anticipated, the situation came to a head in recent days amid reports that he and the president were no longer on speaking terms. He has clashed with new National Security Adviser John R. Bolton over border-security issues, while Mr. Trump has complained about the performance at DHS of his hand-picked successor Kirstjen Nielsen.

Trump allies said the move will benefit Mr. Trump as he focuses more on his re-election, but some lawmakers in both parties worried aloud that the White House will miss Mr. Kelly’s organizational skills in dealing with Congress and other matters.

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has had heated disagreements with Mr. Kelly, said he is “very happy that it looks like the president is going to bring in a new team, not just the chief of staff, but other individuals with one focus, and the only focus a first-term president ever has, which is securing a second term.”

“Bringing in people who understand the political reality of what’s about to transpire on Capitol Hill with the subpoena cannon that the Democrats are going to use against this White House, and understand what that means from a political side is very important,” Mr. Lewandowski said Sunday on “Fox & Friends.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties said they are sorry to see Mr. Kelly depart.

“Our country is better for his duty at the White House,” said retiring Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “During this time he has become a dear friend and trusted partner. 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.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said the stability of the White House going forward “depends who they put in as a replacement.”

“I’m a huge John Kelly fan,” Mr. Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Obviously, it’s a loss to see him go.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said he’s “worried” about Mr. Kelly leaving.

“I imagine that he was one of the people that was attempting to convince the president not to fire Mueller, to not issue pardons as a means of trying to influence the investigation,” Mr. Murphy said on ABC’s “This Week.” He added that it will raise concerns in Congress that “Mueller may be on the chopping block.”

The job of White House chief of staff is considered one of the most demanding in Washington, and a tenure of two years is considered normal. Mr. Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, lasted only six months.

Mr. Kelly came on board the White House in the summer of 2017 to bring some discipline to an often freewheeling work atmosphere. He received credit for restoring a sense of order in the West Wing as a gatekeeper to the president, but also created resentment in some quarters for limiting access to Mr. Trump. He also reportedly clashed with the first lady’s office over staffing issues.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the president praised Mr. Kelly during a private Christmas dinner for White House senior staff Friday night.

“It’s been a long two years for the chief, Gen. Kelly,” Mr. Kudlow said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t think he was fired. I wasn’t privy to that final conversation, but the president had great things to say about him. He has given such phenomenal service to this country, perhaps it is time for a rest.”

Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, said Mr. Ayers, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, would bring a “different approach” to the West Wing.

“He seems to be a very disciplined person,” he said. “He did cut his teeth early on on some of the campaign issues and as we transition to 2020, I think it’s important to know that.”

Mr. Lewandowski said he clashed with Mr. Kelly because the chief of staff resisted the mantra of “let Trump be Trump.”

“You can’t change the way the president operates,” Mr. Lewandowski said. “I believe the president is best when he’s out talking directly to the American people. When people come into the administration, and try and change his policies as a detriment, or allow people to work in the government who don’t support the president’s agenda, I fundamentally disagree with that.”

Ms. Nauert is being nominated to replace U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who announced her intention to depart the job weeks ago. Mr. Barr, former attorney general in the administration of George H.W. Bush, has been tapped to replace acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker, who took over in November for ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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