WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump said Saturday that chief of staff John Kelly will leave his job by year’s end amid an expected West Wing reshuffling reflecting a focus on the 2020 re-election campaign and the challenge of governing with Democrats reclaiming control in the House.
An announcement about Kelly’s replacement was expected in the coming days, the president told reporters as he departed the White House for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, is Trump’s top choice to replace Kelly, and the two have held discussions for months about the job, a White House official said.
The announcement Saturday comes a day after Trump named his picks for attorney general and ambassador to the United Nations, and two senior aides shifted from the White House to Trump’s campaign.
“John Kelly will leaving—I don’t know if I can say retiring—but he’s a great guy,” Trump told reporters. “John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year. We’ll be announcing who will be taking John’s place—it might be on an interim basis. I’ll be announcing that over the next day or two, but John will be leaving at the end of the year. … I appreciate his service very much.”
Kelly had early successes, including ending an open-door Oval Office policy that that had been compared to New York’s Grand Central Station and instituting a more rigorous policy process to try to prevent staffers from going directly to Trump.
But those efforts also miffed the president and some of his most influential outside allies, who had grown accustomed to unimpeded access. Kelly’s handling of domestic violence accusations against the former White House staff secretary also caused consternation, especially among lower-level White House staffers, who believed Kelly had lied to them about when he found out about the allegations.
In any administration, the role of White House chief of staff is split between the responsibilities of supervising the White House and managing the man sitting in the Oval Office. Striking that balance in the turbulent times of Trump has bedeviled both Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus.
White House aides say Trump has developed confidence in Ayers, in part by watching the effectiveness of Pence’s largely independent political operation. Ayers also earned the backing of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law and senior advisers, for taking on the new role, White House officials said.
The Georgia native’s meteoric rise in GOP politics included a successful stint at the Republican Governors Association, time as campaign manager for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s failed White House bid and consultant work for dozens of high-profile Republicans, including Pence.
Ayers, 36, would be the youngest chief of staff since 34-year-old Hamilton Jordan served under Jimmy Carter. Kelly is 68.
Trump Friday announced that he would nominate William Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, to the same role in his administration. He fills the slot vacated by former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Trump also said that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was his pick to replace Nikki Haley as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Earlier Saturday, he announced that he wanted Army chief of staff Gen. Mark Milley as the next chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Among the other changes, two veterans of Trump’s 2016 campaign, White House political director Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, the director of the office of public liaison, are leaving the administration to work on Trump’s re-election effort. The moves had long been planned, but will give Kelly’s eventual successor room to build their own political team.
Trump had discussed replacing Kelly on multiple occasions, including following the negative publicity surrounding Kelly’s handling of domestic violence accusations against then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Some lower-level White House staffers believed Kelly had lied to them about when he knew of the allegations and when he made clear to Porter that he’d have to leave.
By Zeke Miller and Jill Colvin