President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report California wildfire becomes deadliest in state’s history Sinema’s Senate win cheered by LGBTQ groups MORE appears poised to make high-level staff changes in his administration, including replacing White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, as he gears up for his reelection campaign in 2020.
The next top official on Trump’s chopping block could be Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report Trump moves to restrict asylum claims at border Hillicon Valley: Sessions out | Facebook took down over 100 Russian pages before midterms | DHS says no sign of successful midterm cyberattack | US customers affected by HSBC bank breach | Zuckerberg snubs UK, Canada call to testify MORE, according to multiple media reports. Nielsen is a close ally of Kelly and speculation has mounted that her ouster could trigger the chief of staff’s departure. Kelly has reportedly fought to save Nielsen’s job when she has come under fire from Trump.
Trump did not answer questions from reporters on Tuesday about Nielsen’s possible departure and other staff changes.
Nick Ayers, who serves as chief of staff to Vice President Pence, has emerged as a leading contender to replace Kelly, sources close to the administration told The Hill.
Trump met privately with Ayers in the past couple of weeks, according to one source. The person did not know the contents of their conversation but said the meeting was widely interpreted as a sign Ayers is under consideration as the next White House chief of staff.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Washington Post first reported on Nielsen’s possible exit, and The Wall Street Journal, ABC News and NBC News followed by reporting that Trump has spoken with his aides and confidants about an Ayers-for-Kelly swap.
NBC reported that Kelly has become embroiled in conflicts involving first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Dems prepare to aggressively wield new oversight powers Trump arrives separately as world leaders gather to mark end of WWI Trump criticized after White House cancels cemetery visit in France over weather MORE’s office, which the news outlet said has further frustrated the president.
Sources cautioned that Trump has mused about replacing members of his staff in the past, including Kelly, only for those changes not to be made.
A young, ambitious GOP operative, Ayers for months has been seen as a possible successor for Kelly. Pence’s chief of staff has developed good relationships with Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Trump’s tough-love policy for China Don’t hold your breath for a ceasefire in Yemen MORE and Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpStan Lee, legendary comic book writer, dies at 95 Ashton Kutcher to Ivanka Trump: ‘Plead with your dad’ about gun control The Hill’s Morning Report — Split decision: Dems take House, GOP retains Senate majority MORE, as well as other members of Trump’s family, who view him as competent and politically astute, sources say.
People close to the White House have also grumbled that Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, does not have the political chops to lead the West Wing heading into the 2020 election.
Ayers served as the executive director of the Republican Governors’ Association during the 2010 elections, when the GOP netted six governorships, and has earned praise for Pence’s political strategy surrounding the 2018 midterms.
But Ayers suffered a major defeat in 2012 when he led former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R) failed presidential campaign.
And while he has powerful supporters in the White House, Ayers has also attracted many enemies inside and outside the building, leading some sources to caution his hiring is not assured.
“It’s an understatement to say the knives are out for him. The machetes are out for him,” said one former White House official.
The renewed focus on Kelly comes months after White House officials said Trump had asked him to remain on board through the 2020 elections, and that Kelly agreed.
That announcement was made in July amid an intense period of speculation about Kelly’s future and was seen as an effort to quell talk of staff changes ahead of the midterm elections.
But the revolving door at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is now back in full swing.
Trump pushed out Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report Acting AG will meet with DOJ ethics officials to discuss possible recusal: reports Swalwell calls acting AG an ‘assassin’ hired to ‘take out’ Mueller probe MORE the day after Republicans lost control of the House, which followed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyU.S. think tank identifies 13 undeclared missile bases in North Korea Stalled talks with North Korea indicate larger unravelling of progress Overnight Defense: Pentagon’s No. 3 resigns | Pompeo presses Beijing on South China Sea | North Korea ‘wasn’t ready’ for talks, Haley says MORE’s pre-election announcement she would leave her post by year’s end.
The president has reportedly complained about what he sees as Nielsen’s poor performance on border enforcement amid his concerns about growing numbers of migrants apprehended at the southwest border and a caravan of Central Americans heading for the U.S.
“The secretary is honored to lead the men and women of DHS and is committed to implementing the president’s security-focused agenda to protect Americans from all threats and will continue to do so,” Department of Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton said in a statement.
Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton engaged in a shouting match last month after Bolton sided with Trump and blamed Nielsen for the high level of border crossings, according to multiple outlets.
Reports indicated, however, there is no timeline for Nielsen’s departure, and it remains unclear if it has been finalized.
Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Trump, California leaders clash over fires | Trump says oil prices should be ‘much lower’ | Zinke criticizes media coverage | Officials consider new truck pollution rule Trump, California battle over climate and cause of fires Zinke slams reporting on his scandals MORE and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossThe Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Dems prepare to aggressively wield new oversight powers Congress braces for high-drama lame duck On The Money: Dems mark Trump tax returns as key part of agenda | Waters defends planned probe of Trump finances after GOP backlash | Reports: Trump mulls replacing Commerce chief Ross by end of year MORE also may be living on borrowed time as both men deal with various ethics controversies that could come under investigation by Democrats when they take control of the House next year.
There have been reports that Trump could part ways with Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump’s Armistice Day trip marked by controversy | US ends aerial refueling to Saudi coalition in Yemen | Analysts identify undeclared North Korean missile bases Pompeo reaffirms to Saudi crown prince US will hold Khashoggi’s killers ‘accountable’ With no alternatives, military’s tribalism must go MORE as he seeks new blood for his team.
“Uh, why would I do that? Is that the new rumor? No, I don’t,” Trump said last week when asked whether he wants change at the Pentagon. “I was surprised by that question. I hadn’t heard that one.”
But Mattis could win a reprieve if Trump follows through on his reported desire to remove Mira Ricardel as Bolton’s top deputy, a move the Journal wrote that the president is weighing
Ricardel has repeatedly clashed with Mattis and was seen as pushing for his ouster. Melania Trump’s office on Tuesday openly pushed for Ricardel’s ouster.
“It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House,” said the first lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham.
Turnover is not unusual at the end of the first two years of any administration, when officials typically leave due to burnout or to work on the reelection. But Trump has already presided over an unusual amount of change among his senior White House staff and often in dramatic fashion.
Allies of the president say, however, it’s natural for Trump to want changes to his team.
“I do think he deserves to have a Cabinet he is happy with,” said a former White House official. “He deserves to have an [attorney general] who he is comfortable with.”
The president may also feel emboldened to make sweeping changes to his Cabinet because he has an expanded Republican majority in the Senate.
“But what it comes down to is they now have the votes to confirm nominees. Since that is the case, I don’t see real issues with shaking it up,” the former official said.
Trump replaced his national security adviser in his first weeks in office, and is now on his third. He’s working with his second chief of staff, his third Homeland Security secretary and has seen changes at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, CIA, Department of Veterans Affairs and State Department.
More top White House staff members also expected to depart in the coming weeks, some to work on the 2020 campaign.
Trump has seen record levels of turnover among his senior White House staff during his first two years in office, according to data compiled by Brookings Institution senior fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas.
In his Cabinet, the president has already seen nine changes, equal to the number former President Obama had after four years in office and more than double what President George W. Bush had after his first term.
Twelve members of President Clinton’s Cabinet were replaced over his four years in the White House.