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Help wanted: Trump needs new chief of staff for 'the worst of times'

Analysis: If the president doesn't empower his next top aide, he could encounter serious problems, experts say.
Trump hosts a cyber security meeting at the White House in Washington
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly listens to President Donald Trump during a meeting in Washington on Jan. 31, 2017.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is hiring a chief of staff, but it's not clear that he really wants anyone else running the show at the White House.

That's at the heart of the problem Trump faces as he scrambles to find a replacement for long-suffering chief of staff John Kelly, who was scheduled for departure at the end of the month before the president had lined up a successor.

The question bouncing around Washington's marble power corridors this week is whether there's anyone who would take the job who would be good at it.

"In the best of circumstances, James A. Baker III would always tell White House chiefs, 'Congratulations, you've got the worst f---ing job in government,'" Chris Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency," said of the former top aide to President George H.W. Bush.

"These are the worst of times for a White House chief," Whipple added. "Any incoming White House chief has to be aware that they are heading into a world of trouble" with Democrats taking control of the House come January and special counsel Robert Mueller "closing in."

Experts on White House operations say Trump's desire to run his own operation has been an impediment to him and could make the job less attractive to potential candidates.

Chris Lu, who served as Cabinet secretary under President Barack Obama, told NBC News that part of the problem is that Trump hasn't shown much willingness to let his chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and Kelly, do their jobs. That includes managing the policy process, limiting the number decisions the president has to make, controlling access and telling him "no" when he needs to hear it.

"It doesn’t seem like Trump really wants a chief of staff, and that's just not an efficient way to run a White House — to have the president calling all the shots," Lu said. "You don’t need a yes-man as chief of staff. That's a recipe for disaster."

Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, will be leaving at the end of the year, rather than staying on as the top staffer to the president.

Trump said Sunday that he is vetting other candidates for the job.

The most widely discussed names have been in circulation for many months, as Kelly was long rumored to be on the chopping block. They include North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a top Trump ally in Congress who will otherwise find himself in the minority caucus in January; OMB Director Mick Mulvaney; and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Mulvaney and Mnuchin have indicated privately that they aren't excited by the prospects of taking over at the White House.

But Meadows, who showed little interest in the job before Democrats cleaned up in the midterm elections last month, is now publicly flirting with it.

"Serving as chief of staff would be an incredible honor," he said in a statement. "The president has a long list of qualified candidates and I know he'll make the best selection for his administration and for the country."

Last month, according to Politico, Meadows wrote a private memo detailing the ways Trump's allies in the House could thwart Democratic efforts to investigate and possibly impeach him.

Trump's interest in Ayers raised the prospect that, rather than picking an expert in governance as he gets set to deal with divided party control in Congress, he might want someone who is more focused on the political battlefield. Ayers made his name as a campaign operative, and Republicans sources say Trump may give consideration to David Bossie and David Urban.

Bossie, the deputy campaign manager of Trump's 2016 bid and the president and CEO of Citizens United, did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did Urban, a former chief of staff to Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania who has experience both in Washington's legislative battles and in campaigns.

The White House chief of staff — or WHCOS in D.C. shorthand — has long been the most sought-after staff job in Washington. In all, it has been held by 32 people — all men — including Dick Cheney, who served as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and would later win election to Congress and to the vice presidency.

But it's a tough gig. In normal times, the chief of staff works around the clock, takes blame for all foul-ups within an administration, gets no public credit and says "no" to most supplicants, including the president.

It can be a terrible post in times of scandal, like the one Trump potentially faces now with the Mueller investigation. H.R. Haldeman, who was President Richard Nixon's chief of staff, served 18 months in prison for various crimes related to his role in the Watergate cover-up.

And Trump's record of trashing top lieutenants while they work for him and on their way out the door — including Kelly, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster among them — might make anyone wary of taking a job in close proximity to him.

The prospects of having to lawyer up and worry about tarnishing a long-built reputation would be bad enough. But Trump seems inclined to blame his aides for failures even as he gives them little freedom to do their jobs.

Whipple likened Trump's approach to that of President Jimmy Carter, who was famous for micromanaging during his four years in the White House.

"If Donald Trump wants to be a one-term president, like Jimmy Carter, he should continue doing what he's doing, namely not empowering a White House chief of staff to help him in governing," he said. "They share that delusion that you can run the White House by yourself. He needs to get this right or it's going to be a very rocky road."