By Vaughn Hillyard, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker, Geoff Bennett and Carol E. Lee
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appears poised to replace current chief of staff John Kelly, the 68 year-old, four-star marine general, with a 36-year old multi-millionaire who has a reputation as a polarizing and hard-charging fixture in Republican politics, multiple officials tell NBC News.
Nick Ayers, who has served in the administration as the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence for the last 17 months, has agreed to serve as acting chief of staff to President Trump, a senior White House official tells NBC News. Trump has discussed with Ayers the prospect of him serving as his right hand in the West Wing for months.
But the official tells NBC News that Ayers had planned to return to his home in Georgia, with his wife and six-year-old triplets, at the end of 2018 and has told the president that he cannot make the two-year commitment that the president has requested he make, which has held up the process of naming him to the position.
Ayers did not respond to NBC News' request for comment.
Ayers would serve as the president’s third chief of staff in less than two years. Former RNC chief Reince Priebus served as chief of staff for the first six months of the administration before the president turned to retired four-star Marine general John Kelly.
Trump, in a 2012 tweet, castigated President Obama for rotating through three chiefs of staff early in his first term.
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3 Chief of Staffs in less than 3 years of being President: Part of the reason why @BarackObama can't manage to pass his agenda.
The Georgia native has increasingly garnered the ear of President Trump since joining the administration in mid-2017.
Ayers has made his name off of his political consulting, including his work for Target Enterprises, a TV ad buying firm. He ran Tim Pawlenty’s failed presidential campaign in 2011, and has advised numerous gubernatorial campaigns around the country.
There are questions about a potential domino effect if Trump ultimately names Ayers to the role. Inside the White House, there are murmurs that numerous staffers have threatened to quit. But sources say that Ayers is viewed favorably by both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and has also received high praise from Pence, his current boss. And some of those who had originally pushed for Kelly as chief of staff have soured on him over time.
“If the president is going to make any changes, I’ll leave it to the president to announce changes,” Pence told reporters while on an overseas trip in November. “But Nick has done a phenomenal job.”
Ayers has drawn scrutiny at times within the White House. In early 2018, Pence tapped GOP pollster Jon Lerner to serve as his national security adviser. Lerner, who worked with Ayers on Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign, soon withdrew his name from the job after questions arose about his past campaign work opposing Trump’s candidacy for president. Ayers also considers himself a close friend of outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
He first began working as a political consultant to Pence in early 2015 after the then-governor of Indiana signed a controversial religious freedom restoration law, which, opponents contended, would allow for the discrimination of LGBTQ individuals in Indiana. Pence, who had eyed his own potential presidential run, would go on to sign an amended version of the law that explicitly prevented discrimination when providing services.
Ayers would continue his work with Pence over the following year and aid in the vetting process that led to the Indiana governor’s selection as Trump’s running mate in 2016. During that campaign, Ayers served as the chairman of Pence’s vice presidential campaign operation.
If tapped, Ayers would serve as the president’s third chief of staff in two years. Former RNC chief Reince Priebus served as chief of staff for the first six months of the administration before the president turned to retired four-star Marine general John Kelly.
The selection of Ayers would sharpen the administration’s focus on the president’s re-election efforts, notably after the GOP lost 40 House seats in this November’s midterm elections.
Ayers helped launch the main pro-Trump super PAC, America First Policies, as well as Pence’s leadership PAC, Great America Committee, in 2017.
But Ayers first emerged onto the GOP playing field while in college at Kennesaw State University, serving as body man to Sonny Perdue and eventually the campaign manager for the Georgian’s re-election bid. He would go on to lead the Republican Governors’ Association at the age of 24 and then helmed the short-lived 2011 presidential campaign of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
It was on that campaign that Pence would hire Sarah Huckabee Sanders as Pawlenty’s Iowa state director and now-acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker served as the campaign’s Iowa chairman.
Vaughn Hillyard is a political reporter for NBC News.
Hallie Jackson is the chief White House correspondent for NBC News.
Kristen Welker is a White House correspondent for NBC News.
Geoff Bennett is a White House correspondent for NBC News.