The Trump presidency is entering a perilous new phase with the swearing in of a new, Democratic-controlled House and the uncertainty surrounding investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and New York prosecutors.
A change in course would benefit the White House.
A new chief of staff would help that occur.
There is no doubt that the surprise decision by Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, to decline the job has left President Trump without an obvious backup plan.
As an executive, you never announce a senior person is leaving without knowing who will replace them. So that was the first mistake.
I do not doubt Mr. Trump thought Mr. Ayers would accept the job. It’s a hard offer to refuse. But his young family requires his attention and he will remain in the fold through the super PAC amid the 2020 re-election.
Last Friday, it was reported that Mr. Trump, departing Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Mr. Pence and Mr. Ayers met to hash out the plan for the transition. Mr. Kelly reportedly wanted to be able to announce his own departure to the staff on Monday morning.
President Trump failed to stick to the plan. On Saturday morning, he announced Mr. Kelly would be leaving at year’s end. He must have thought he had an agreement with Mr. Ayers, an assumption which now puts the president in a tight spot.
The appropriate way to handle these things is for the departing and incoming chiefs of staff to appear together in a public event, demonstrating executive continuity and a smooth transition.
White House chief of staff is widely considered to be the toughest job in government. There is never a quiet moment. The pressure is intense. The stakes are high. People in these jobs very rarely last more than two years.
A successful White House chief of staff requires two things: authority in the West Wing and throughout the executive branch that comes from the president and a relationship of complete trust with the occupant of the Oval Office.
It is often said that the White House chief of staff needs to be the type of person who can enter the Oval Office and privately tell the president, “no.” President Trump needs this kind of individual now more than ever.
For the chief of staff is just another White House employee. The West Wing is a hotbed of activity and an air traffic controller is necessary. Hundreds of decisions are being made each day and the president cannot make them all.
With enough self-confidence, Mr. Trump would realize his own strengths and weaknesses and he would seek a new staff chief who complements him. Then the president would empower that person to run the place, backing him or her up at every turn. Loyalty must work in both directions.
It has also been widely reported that Mr. Trump has been seeking someone with political chops, given that he is entering a re-election cycle and a brutal two years with high-stakes battles ahead on Capitol Hill. What is important now is that the president make the right choice given what his presidency requires at this moment.
That means someone who can privately criticize him (sharply if needed), can clean up the White House staff, can oversee the Cabinet reshuffle, can coordinate with the 2020 re-election campaign, and can inspire trust and work with leadership on Capitol Hill. Finding one person who can do all of this — and who also is willing to take the job — is a very tough task.
The new chief of staff crucially needs to help Mr. Trump be a better and more effective president. The 2020 race will be a judgment on the direction of the country. The 2018 midterm results should have been a wake-up call. Mr. Trump’s base is not enough.
That said, the next chief of staff needs to be not a pal but a partner of the president. Given the brutal and challenging months ahead, Mr. Trump can’t get this one wrong.
Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.
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