Trump eyes post-midterm shakeup

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem 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 NielsenThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Senators urge Trump to fill vacancies at DHS Trump taps Chad Wolf as new acting DHS secretary 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.

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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 TrumpTrump gets a warm reception at Alabama-LSU game Comedy group swaps Trump Jr. book jacket with fake title: 'Daddy, Please Love Me' Man pleads guilty in plot to attack Cleveland on July 4 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 KushnerHaley: Top Trump aides tried to get me to undermine him Man pleads guilty in plot to attack Cleveland on July 4 Progressives press Democrats to rethink Israel policy MORE and Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpIvanka Trump: Whistleblower identity 'not particularly relevant' The Hill's Morning Report - What Bevin's apparent loss in Kentucky means Man pleads guilty in plot to attack Cleveland on July 4 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 attends football game with Jeff Sessions' Alabama Senate race opponent Bradley Byrne Impeachment tests Barr-Trump relationship Tide, Tigers and Trump: President hopes for home-field advantage in Alabama MORE the day after Republicans lost control of the House, which followed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyHaley: Top Trump aides tried to get me to undermine him Former UN ambassador predicts Trump won't be impeached Top Democrat: Getting Trump off the ballot wouldn't benefit party 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: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics Overnight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule MORE and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossTrump trade adviser pushes back on reports of US-China tariff deal China, US agree to reduce tariffs amid trade talks, Beijing says Income for poorest Americans fell faster than previously thought: study 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 MattisFormer Mattis staffer: Trump 'shooting himself in the foot' on foreign policy Former staffer hits back at Mattis's office over criticism of tell-all book Former speechwriter for General James Mattis: Has the national security state grappled with Donald Trump? 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.