The Memo: Ayers decision casts harsh light on Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE is scrambling to find a new chief of staff to replace John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE — and the turmoil is casting a harsh light on his administration.

The probe by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE is picking up speed, amplifying the inherent risks in working for the volatile Trump. It has made a job that would once have been a career pinnacle fraught with peril.

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“You’re not becoming the chief of staff for the president of the United States,” one Republican operative told The Hill on Monday. “You’re becoming the chief of staff for Individual-1.”

Mueller is the tip of the spear aimed at Trump, but there are other problems facing him, too. 

The Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives next month, the administration is already considered understaffed in crucial areas and the president’s chances of reelection are seen as shaky at best.

“Do you want to be chief of staff if this guy doesn’t get reelected?” said another source in Trump’s orbit.

The question of who would fill Kelly’s shoes had seemed settled as recently as Saturday, with Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, being lined up for the role.

But the putative deal fell apart the next day. It is claimed that Ayers is eager to return to his native Georgia with his young family, but the explanation is viewed with acute skepticism in Washington — especially coming from an aide whose ambition is conspicuous even by the standards of the capital.

“Nick Ayers is so sharp-elbowed, so ambitious, that now the professional political community is in shock,” was the Republican operative’s verdict.

Among Trump loyalists, Ayers’s decision is also the subject of considerable — and often profane — anger. They believe he has embarrassed the president.

Trump critics, meanwhile, have taken the Ayers decision as a sign that he sees the writing on the wall.

“Nick Ayers doesn’t need more money, doesn’t need to return to Georgia, and hasn’t suddenly developed moral scruples about associating with Trump,” Bill Kristol, of The Weekly Standard, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “He’s fleeing the Trump ship.”

The president has been pushing back on such ideas and lambasting the media yet again. 

“I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff. Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers, a spectacular person who will always be with our #MAGA agenda. I will be making a decision soon!” he wrote on Sunday evening.

The chief of staff role, in particular, is an arduous one in the Trump era. The first person to hold the position, Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusMulvaney poised to become permanent White House chief of staff: report DNC decision to shut out Fox News hurts Democratic candidates and Americans The five Trump communications directors who have come and gone MORE, was fired via tweet by Trump as the president sat on Air Force One, leaving Priebus humiliated. Kelly suffered through innumerable negative stories about the loss of his initial influence with the president and had to battle many internal foes.

At a more fundamental level, neither man was able to restrain the president.

“It’s a no-win scenario to work for this president, who always makes his own decisions. When a general as accomplished as Kelly can’t even corral the president, who could?” a third GOP operative with ties to the White House said.

There are some defenders of the president’s approach.

Former White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciScaramucci: Trump McCain attacks are 'socially unnatural,' 'stupid' The five Trump communications directors who have come and gone White House spokeswoman leaving to join PR firm MORE, who was fired by Kelly, told The Hill, “Ultimately the president likes conflict and ironically doesn’t like sycophants. He has zero tolerance for the Washington crowd that alters their behavior while he is in the room and badmouths him when he is not.”

But independent experts are not so generous.

Robert Schlesinger, the author of a book on presidents and their speechwriters, noted that Trump had “troubles at the beginning” when it came to staffing because of the suspicion with which he was regarded by much of the GOP establishment. Things have only worsened since.

“Now, two years in, you have the legal problems — and it is very clear that Trump is going to be Trump and do Trumpian things,” Schlesinger added.

A shortlist for the chief of staff position has been drawn up following the Ayers refusal.

Among the names mentioned are Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsJordan, Meadows backed by new ads from pro-Trump group: report Trump keeps tight grip on GOP Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus; White House budget director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyWhite House rejects Dem request for documents on Trump-Putin communications Consumer bureau chief reverses efforts to sideline advisory panels Mulvaney poised to become permanent White House chief of staff: report MORE; David Bossie, deputy campaign manager on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign; and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTreasury expands penalty relief to more taxpayers China says it will investigate firms sanctioned by US for helping North Korea Treasury targets two Chinese shipping firms under North Korea sanctions MORE.

After initial reports that Meadows was not interested, he reinserted himself back into contention with a statement on Monday noting that serving in the role “would be an incredible honor.”

Bossie, a longtime conservative activist who was one of the first people to seriously encourage Trump to run for the White House, is also said by people close to him to be interested.

Others, including Mulvaney and Mnuchin, are reportedly more ambivalent. And some long-shot candidates have sought to cool speculation about themselves. 

Randy Levine, the president of the New York Yankees, responded to reports that listed him as a contender by telling Fox News that he had “spoken to nobody about the chief of staff job” and was “very happy being president of the Yankees.”

Among some aides, there is a desire that the new chief of staff should be of roughly similar age to the 72-year-old president. They theorize that such a person would tend to have a better instinctive understanding of Trump's sensibilities — and would be more likely to retain his respect. Ayers, who is 36, would have tested that thesis.

Other Republicans worry that the difficulties of recruiting people to top positions will affect the White House in a larger sense. 

The communications team, the White House Counsel’s Office and the political operation are all understaffed, they contend — a particularly serious problem as the ship heads into its choppiest waters to date.

Referring to the Mueller investigation, one GOP source said, “The White House is not ready for war. They do not have a chief of staff and they have a bare-bones general counsel staff.”

This source lamented that there was “a lot of talent on the street” following the loss of around 40 Republican House seats in November’s midterm elections, but added, “Many of them are reluctant to go into the Trump White House because of the long-term stigma.”

Asked to clarify, the source said, “It’s a stigma from working for the president that would harm future employment opportunities.”

Some high-profile figures who have exited the Trump administration have failed to pick up the kind of lucrative post-White House jobs that veterans of other recent presidencies have enjoyed.

For now, Trump would presumably settle for recruiting a chief of staff without further drama. But that might be more easily said than done.

“Trump has yet to show any evidence that he wants someone in that job who will tell him hard truths,” said Chris Whipple, the author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book about past chiefs of staff. 

“You really have to wonder who would want to be Donald Trump’s chief of staff when this administration is headed for a world of trouble,” he added. “A Democratic House, Robert Mueller closing in — any contender for White House chief of staff has to think about lawyering up.”

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