Life imitating TV: Trump’s search for new chief of staff has reality show feel
- ‘Sad to watch’ is how one analyst described the president’s process of finding someone for what is usually a sought-after job
Serious contenders are hiding from view. Celebrity hangers-on are applying via Twitter. Fresh names circulate practically on the hour. And the man in charge is stoking much of the confusion.
President Donald Trump’s hunt for a new chief of staff has taken on the feel of a reality TV show.
No leading name has emerged in the days since Trump’s preferred candidate to replace John Kelly bowed out. But the void has quickly filled with drama.
British journalist Piers Morgan suggested he would be a good fit in an op-ed for The Daily Mail, while former major league slugger Jose Canseco tweeted his interest to Trump.
Speculation has swirled around an array of Trump associates, prompting some to distance themselves from the job.
Hey little buddy @realDonaldTrump u need a bash brother for Chief if Staff. Got a secret reorg plan already. Also worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday. I will buff you up daily workouts. DM me. #yeswecanseco
— Jose Canseco (@JoseCanseco) December 13, 2018
When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited the White House this week, he insisted it was merely to see the Christmas decorations.
Trump met on Thursday with former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to discuss the job, according to a person familiar with the meeting who was not authorised to mention it publicly.
The chaotic process is hardly a novelty for the Trump administration, which has struggled with high staff turnover and attracting top talent, but it underscored the tumult of Trump’s Washington.
In past administrations, chief of staff was a sought-after job, typically awarded after a careful process. Now, many view the job as a risky proposition, given Trump’s propensity for disorder and his resistance to being managed.
For his part, Trump insisted on Thursday that the process is moving along.
“We’re interviewing people now for chief of staff,” he said, adding that the shortlist is now “five people”.
“Really good ones. Terrific people. Mostly well-known, but terrific people,” he insisted.
Trump himself likes to feed the drama, dropping hints about the number of candidates in the running and bantering with journalists about who wants the job. The erratic search recalled the transition period before Trump took office, when prospective aides and television personalities paraded before a pack of journalists in the lobby of Trump Tower.
Author Chris Whipple, an expert on chiefs of staff, called the search process “sad to watch”.
“In his first two years, Trump devalued the position by failing to empower anyone to perform the job, and now he’s turned the search for a replacement into a reality show,” said Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, a book on the subject. “The only thing more broken and dysfunctional than the White House itself seems to be the search for the new White House chief of staff.”
The president’s hunt for a new chief reverted to square one over the weekend when Nick Ayers, Vice-President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, took himself out of the running and decided he would instead leave the White House. The announcement surprised even senior staff, who believed that Ayers’ ascension was a done deal.
Trump then turned to a list of other candidates that was said to include Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and congressman Mark Meadows. Other options mentioned were US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, though both signalled they were happy in their current roles.
By Wednesday, Meadows was out of the running, with the White House saying Trump thinks he is needed in Congress.
Throughout the week, a number of other names were floated, including former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, White House communications director Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Sanders. It was not clear how many of those options were being taken seriously.
The breadth of speculation provided on-camera time for many to discuss the speculation. Bossie called it “humbling” to be considered while acknowledging that he did not know if it was a serious list of names. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said on CNN that he would decline the job if offered, though it was never clear he was a serious contender.
Sanders responded Thursday to speculation that Trump’s aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could be up for the job, saying she was “not aware that he’s under consideration”. But she appeared to leave some wiggle room, adding, “He will be great in any role that the president chooses to put him in.”
According to a person familiar with the matter, Kushner says he can serve the president best in his current role.
A time frame for a decision is uncertain and there is speculation two people might take over the job.
Trump made clear on Fox News on Thursday that he was still taking advice.
“I want somebody that’s strong, but I want somebody that thinks like I do. It’s my vision – it is my vision, after all,” Trump said. “At the same time, I’m open to ideas.”