With Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, declining to serve as the new minder for President Donald Trump (known in some quarters as Individual-1), the new game in Washington seems to be a version of hot potato. The effort to fill the job has led to the ironic, if perhaps unlikely, possibility that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom Trump has disrespected in the past, might be asked to fill the post.
One after another, other potential candidates for White House chief of staff are saying, "Don't look at me," and it's becoming clear that Trump has degraded the value of yet another element of the national power structure.
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Previously held by the likes of James Baker III and Leon Panetta, the job that John Kelly will vacate at the end of this month has traditionally been regarded as one of the most important in the world. Chiefs have generally enjoyed more engagement with the president than anyone else on his staff. So, if Kelly's role is vacant in the new year, it would be a problem.
As President, and previously as a New York businessman, Trump has been the kind of boss whom accomplished, self-possessed men and women would learn to avoid. A bully with a penchant for wild claims and ethically dubious schemes, he has a tendency to bring out the worst in those around him.
But Kelly is more formidable than most in the administration: He was a Marine Corps general and Department of Homeland Security secretary before taking the chief of staff position. Kelly was supposed to bring order and discipline to the White House and to Trump. Instead, he wound up marginalized to such a degree that he and the President reportedly stopped speaking.
Ayers' name has been bandied about for months. He is, by all accounts, a sharp-elbowed political operator, and as Pence's top aide ran a tight ship. Ayers is also regarded as an exceedingly astute judge of political wind (to continue the nautical analogy) and when asked to replace Kelly he decided not only to decline but also to leave his position as Pence's chief of staff to devote himself to a well-funded pro-Trump political action committee. At 36, Ayers has already built a personal fortune in excess of $12 million through political work.
What Ayers surely recognized was that as chief of staff he would have been swamped by Trump controversies and, potentially, drawn into his schemes and scandals. A taxpayer-funded job would have required that Ayers meet legal and ethical standards that might be hard to maintain in the face of Trump's everyday demands. Rex Tillerson, former secretary of state, recently revealed that he had often resisted Trump requests that would have "violated the law." Wouldn't a chief of staff face the same strain?
The list of alternative chief of staff candidates, which was floated after Ayers turned down the job, has included Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, budget director Mick Mulvaney, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, US Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Christie, who lost the competition to be Trump's running mate in 2016 and was then stiffed when the President handed out plum jobs in his administration.
(Christie may have been undermined at the time by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. When he was a US attorney, Christie prosecuted Kushner's father. The elder Kushner went to prison. Sons tend not to forget such things.)
Among all the boldface names mentioned for the job, Christie is one of the few who has not demurred with a comment similar to "I really like the job I have" (which is another way of saying, "There's no way I'll accept that thankless job"). Meadows has also indicated he would be open to the role, saying it would be an honor to get the offer. His history with Trump isn't as complicated as Christie's. However, he lacks the former governor's executive experience, which could come in handy in the top White House job.
By letting his name stay in the mix, Christie is either signaling he's got less self-respect than the average politician or he's setting up Trump for a creative bit of payback.
Remember, Christie also endured Trump's mockery about his weight and became fodder for commentators who said he looked like Trump's campaign-trail hostage.
One might think that Christie would answer speculation about his coming to the White House with a New Jersey-style "fuggedaboutit." However, by letting the idea breathe he may actually be putting himself in a no-lose situation: If he waits for an actual offer, he can reclaim his dignity by turning it down, or he can take it and create the appearance that Trump needs him for political survival.
Who would have thought that as Trump turned the chief of staff's job into a kind of booby prize he was also empowering Chris Christie? No one did. But with this most-unlikely President, such a bizarre turn makes a perverse kind of sense.
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