President Donald Trump has left his chief of staff, John Kelly, swinging for weeks — but the retired Marine general asserted himself on Monday by announcing to senior staff that he planned to stay at the White House through the 2020 presidential election, according to two White House officials.
Trump actually asked Kelly to stay on past 2020, well into a potential second term, said one of the officials, but Kelly would commit only to 2020 for now. Kelly’s announcement was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
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For weeks now, speculation has swirled throughout the West Wing about Kelly’s potential departure, especially as he approached his one-year anniversary on the job.
The list of names floated as his potential replacement has been wide-ranging and included Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget and head of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection; Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff; and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Some administration officials and close White House advisers have also suggested that Trump might be able to pluck a House member for the chief of staff slot if Republicans lose control of that chamber in the midterms.
Trump himself has gone so far as to poll current and former White House staffers about both Ayers and Mulvaney. In recent weeks, he has been asking people broadly: “What do we think about Mick?”
Mulvaney had been campaigning both inside and outside the White House for the job, as the affable head of two federal agencies and a former congressman from South Carolina with deep ties to House Republicans. Ayers was seen as a contender, thanks his reputation as a savvy political operative and his internal courting of key Trump allies including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
Though more of a longshot, Mnuchin’s name has come up recently given his very close, long-term relationship with Trump dating back to the 2016 campaign. He works well with Trump and understands him, say two Republicans close to the White House, and already is involved in a number of economic and national security issues from his perch at Treasury. His allies insist he is very happy running that department.
In recent weeks, Trump’s relationship with Kelly has hit a more stable plateau after months of turmoil, say current and former senior administration officials and close advisers to the White House.
The addition of other top staffers like national security adviser John Bolton, National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow and deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine has taken some of the pressure off of Kelly and given the president other high-level people to lean on, officials said.
Kelly has also stepped back from participating in every meeting, trying to police access to the president, or controlling the policy-making process as he did early in his tenure, say Republicans close to the White House.
This has given Trump more of the freedom he desires, without having to endure negative headlines about losing another top official and more turnover in the West Wing.
“One reason Kelly has that job for as long as he wants it is that the president is happy with the status quo,” said one Republican close to the White House. “The president basically gets to be his own chief of staff.”
Yet there’s also no guarantee that Trump’s desire for Kelly to stick around through 2020 will hold in the coming months and especially after the mid-terms, when the political calculations of the White House may need to shift if Republican lose control of one or both chambers of Congress.
Several advisers outside the White House and a few top advisers internally have also been agitating for Kelly’s departure, and even as he stays on, he’s widely viewed as a target and a marginalized and unempowered chief of staff.
Some White House officials are so tired of the grind and turnover that they say they hope to get through the midterms and wish the best for whichever crop of staffers next comes into the White House.
“It’s not even worth your time getting into these conversations about the chief of staff,” said a third White House official. “We are just kind fatigued. We keep our head down and keep working through it all.”