The Memo: All eyes on Kelly as Trump shake-up gathers steam

President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE’s long-awaited staff shake-up is underway, but the biggest development is yet to come.

White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE’s departure is expected to be announced any day now, with Nick Ayers the overwhelming favorite to succeed him.

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Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Pence, is a much more political figure than Kelly, the retired Marine general whose primary focus throughout his White House tenure has been on managerial efficiency rather than strategy.

But the same strengths that commend Ayers to his supporters — and to the president — also draw pushback from others.

Ayers’s name has been floated for the top job before and “all of Nick’s detractors went on the warpath,” according to one source close to the White House.

“He has sharp elbows but he is an A-list political talent. And that often breeds resentment,” the source added.

The Hill spoke with more than a half dozen current and former administration officials and others within Trump’s circle about the shake-up.

On Friday, the president announced that he would nominate William Barr to be the new attorney general and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to be the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

In addition, White House political director Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, the director of the office of public liaison, are moving to roles in Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.

But the most feverish speculation surrounds Kelly and Ayers.

Kelly’s demise has been forecast on numerous occasions, but appears to be for real this time around.

Two sources who spoke with The Hill said that a holiday dinner for senior staff, set for Friday evening at the White House after Trump returned from a trip to Kansas City, Mo., had initially been expected to serve a dual function, marking the announcement of Kelly’s departure.

By Friday afternoon, however, an official announcement had been postponed — but probably not for long.

Kelly’s defenders assert he has handled a near-impossible job with stoicism, seeking to manage the mercurial moods of the president as well as the vicious rivalries that rumble on among his aides and broader circle.

“The general installed a chain of command that has been really valuable in improving the effectiveness of the White House,” said longtime Trump friend and ally Michael Caputo. “I think the chain of command will remain after his departure, and it is an important legacy.”

Detractors, however, contend that his buttoned-up manner was always a bad fit for the freewheeling Trump. The president tends to see tensions among his staff as a feature rather than a bug of his management style.

One GOP operative argued that Kelly was worse than his often-derided predecessor, Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusTrump names Mulvaney acting chief of staff Overnight Defense: Pompeo downplays split over Saudi Arabia | Priebus tapped for Navy after Mattis recommendation | North Korea reportedly evading US sanctions Priebus tapped to join Navy with support from Mattis MORE.

“Reince didn’t tighten things but he understood the president’s style better than Kelly,” this source said. “Trump's entire trade and national security agenda is a year behind schedule because Kelly didn't agree with it and he ended up blocking it.”

Abundant palace intrigue surrounds Ayers’s likely ascension to the chief of staff role.

He is said to be close to members of the Trump family, including key advisers Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpTrump to attend World Economic Forum in Davos for second straight year Trump charity agrees to dissolve amid allegations of a 'shocking pattern of illegality' Chris Matthews: Trump Jr., Ivanka ‘stand as the next dominoes to fall’ MORE and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump to attend World Economic Forum in Davos for second straight year Pass the FIRST STEP Act to give second chances at the American Dream No reason to assume American relations with Mexico are rocky MORE, the president’s eldest daughter and son-in-law.

But Ayers’s potential appointment has raised hackles with top members of the president’s staff. Some suggest his relationship with aide Johnny DeStefano is frosty, while others name Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayWaPost media columnist calls for banning Kellyanne Conway from the news ‘Saturday Night Live’ ponders life if Trump had never been elected with Baldwin, Stiller and De Niro George Conway rips Trump's defense of Daniels, McDougal payments MORE as an internal rival.

Conway, a counselor to the president, has pushed back vigorously on that suggestion before.

“I have zero beef with Nick Ayers,” she told CNN in November.

People familiar with Conway’s thinking insist she would support anyone whom the president chose for the chief of staff role, including Ayers. She apparently regards suggestions of tensions between the two as mischief-making on the part of those now exiled from the administration.

The departures of Stepien and Clark are much less controversial. Those movements had been “planned for at least four or five weeks — certainly before the midterms,” said the source close to the White House.

A move to the Trump 2020 campaign was seen as a natural move for both men.

Nauert’s nomination as U.N. ambassador is a promotion for a woman who has impressed disparate factions in the Trump administration with her performance at the State Department. 

Nauert’s rise — she is a former Fox News Channel anchor but has no notable foreign policy experience beyond her current job — is one more data point showing Trump places a higher value on effective communications skills than almost everything else.

The nomination of Barr to be attorney general stands apart from the other moves because of its obvious relevance to the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE. The Mueller probe is intensifying by the day and the new attorney general, if confirmed, would have oversight of it.

Barr held the position of attorney general from 1991 to early 1993 under former President George H.W. Bush, who died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94.

The battle lines in the debate over Barr’s suitability for the role are already being drawn.

To liberals and Trump's critics, he has been too willing to endorse an expansive view of presidential power and take partisan stances.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who's expected to lead the House Judiciary Committee once Democrats take over the majority next month, released a statement Friday evening noting that he had “a number of very serious concerns” with the nomination.

To Trump ultra-loyalists, Barr carries a whiff of the Washington establishment of which they have long been suspicious.

But others praised the choice.

Brad Blakeman, a Republican who served in former President George W. Bush’s White House and is a supporter of Trump, said Barr was an “ideal choice” because he was both “able and respected.”

More broadly, Blakeman added, Trump is in the process of settling on his staff before his focus turns more keenly toward his 2020 reelection hopes.

“You don’t want changes in your senior [White House] staff when you are trying to form a campaign,” he said.

The broader question, however, is whether the personnel changes will really affect the running of an administration where the president’s personality is both so singular and so dominant.

One former White House official said people needed to take a realistic view on that score.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find an administration that didn’t have turnover following a midterm election, particularly one that didn’t go so well for the incumbent party — and it is completely natural for staff to migrate to the reelection campaign,” the former official said.

“That said, I don’t think much changes. This president dictates how the administration and White House function, not the other way around.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.