NEW YORK — As President Trump heads into the fight of his political life, the man he had hoped would help guide him through it has now turned him down, and he finds himself in the unaccustomed position of having no obvious second option.
Nick Ayers, the main focus of Trump’s search to replace John Kelly as chief of staff in recent weeks, said Sunday that he was leaving the administration at the end of the year. Ayers, 36, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, is returning to Georgia with his wife and three young children, according to people familiar with his plans.
The decision leaves Trump to contend with fresh uncertainty as he enters the 2020 campaign amid growing danger from the Russia investigation and from Democrats who have vowed tougher oversight, and could even pursue impeachment, after they take over the House next month.
As the president hastily restarted the search process, speculation focused on a group that was led by Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina and the hard-edged chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, but also included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney; and the US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.
Former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who as a onetime US attorney could help Trump in an impeachment fight, was also being mentioned. And some Trump allies were pushing for David N. Bossie, the deputy campaign manager in 2016.
Trump’s ultimate choice will be faced with a president whom the two previous chiefs of staff found nearly impossible to manage. But Meadows, for instance, could still aid Trump in the coming political battle with congressional leaders, despite his own frayed relationships on Capitol Hill. Weeks ago, Trump started asking people what they would think of Meadows, a fierce supporter of the president, as a chief of staff, before moving on to Ayers.
The president on Sunday disputed news reports that he had settled on Ayers as his pick. “I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff,” he said on Twitter. “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!”
But two people close to Trump said that a news release announcing Ayers’s appointment had been drafted and that the president had wanted to announce it as soon as possible.
Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to the president, said Ayers’s “unique qualification was that he had been doing the same job for the vice president.” But “those of us with young kids very well understand the personal decision he made,” she said.
Other advisers to Trump were stunned by the turn of events. One former senior administration official called it a humiliation for Trump.
For more than six months, Ayers had been viewed as the favored candidate of the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who have been seen as maneuvering for greater control and influence around the president. They had clashed repeatedly with Kelly as he tried to establish more regulated channels to the president. Matt Drudge, an ally of Kushner, weeks ago posted a photo of Ayers on The Drudge Report as the next chief of staff.
But some West Wing officials said Ayers had been measured and cautious in recent days as he negotiated with Trump and his family. Before turning down the job, Ayers told the president he would be willing to do it only on an interim basis, through the spring.
But Trump wants a long-term chief of staff, given the difficult period approaching, and he and Ayers were unable to agree on certain other terms, including whom he could dispose of from the current staff, three people familiar with the events said.
Those who remain in the White House past the end of the year will have to face a fraught and uncertain dynamic. Several potential outcomes of the battles Trump confronts — on impeachment, in the special counsel inquiry, and over allegations that he directed illegal hush payments in 2016 — may not have been advantageous for Ayers if he makes a run for office.
Nick Ayers said in a tweet that after departing he ‘will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause.’
On Sunday, Ayers took to Twitter to say it had been an “honor to serve our Nation at The White House.” “I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause,” he wrote.
The monthslong process to replace Kelly, whom Trump announced Saturday is leaving at the end of the year, is a rare instance in which the president has not been courting candidates simultaneously. Historically, he has signaled to competing prospects that each one is his choice, and then picks one even as he tells both that they are still in the running.
But this time, Ayers reportedly was the only person Trump focused on since he made up his mind to part ways with Kelly.