WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Saturday that chief of staff John Kelly will depart by the end of the year, as the president retools his administration ahead of the expected clash next year with a Democratic-controlled House and his 2020 re-election campaign.
Trump said in the next few days he would name a replacement for Kelly, a retired Marine general whose efforts to bring order to the White House ultimately created tensions with the president. The top candidate is widely reported to be Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers.
“John Kelly will be leaving — I don’t know if I can say retiring — but he’s a great guy,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House to go to the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon.
“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,” Trump said. “I appreciate his service very much.”
Kelly won praise for bringing a more orderly process and restricting what had been wide-open access to the president after he took over the gatekeeper post from Reince Priebus, a former Republican National Committee chairman, in July 2017.
But over time Kelly lost his grip on the process and showed his lack of political experience, with public gaffes and behind-the-scenes shouting matches with other current and former White House officials.
Kelly’s departure comes as Trump reshapes his team for the second half of his term, when Republicans’ control of government will end after they lost the House majority to Democrats in the election last month.
Already he has a new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser, John Bolton. On Friday, he said he would nominate William Barr to replace the ousted Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, of Locust Valley, as UN ambassador to replace Nikki Haley.
Rumors of Kelly’s departure dogged him through the past year, and many of the people he fired, sidelined or blocked publicly criticized his handling of his job. Kelly and Trump also often clashed. CNN reported that they had not talked in recent days.
Kelly faced controversy over a lax security clearance process and his handling of domestic violence accusations against a staff secretary. Despite his claims he had just learned about the accusations, some staff believed he had known about them for months.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is retiring this year, said Kelly had become “a dear friend and trusted partner. He was a force for order, clarity, and good sense.”
Trump in July asked Kelly to stay on through 2020. But in an August interview he said it was possible Kelly might leave the White House.
“There are certain things I love what he does. And there are certain things that I don't like that he does — that aren't his strength,” Trump said, a reference to Kelly’s lack of political savvy.
To replace Kelly, Trump is looking to a rapidly rising political operative: Ayers, 36, a Georgia native and millionaire who built his wealth and reputation in his work on several campaigns and a stint at the Republican Governors Association.
White House officials told reporters that Trump is attempting to work out an arrangement with Ayers, who has told the president he would serve on an interim basis through the spring. Ayers had planned on moving back to Georgia with his young family at the end of the year.
Trump, the officials told reporters, wants a chief of staff who will serve through 2020. Other candidates for the post, The New York Times reported, include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, his budget director Mick Mulvaney, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
Trump developed confidence in the abilities of Ayers by observing the effectiveness of the independent political operation he built for Pence, White House officials told The Associated Press. Ayers also won backing for the post from senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law.
When Trump told reporters Saturday of Kelly’s departure, he pre-empted Kelly’s planned Monday announcement — Kelly met with Trump, Pence and Ayers Friday evening about his departure, The Washington Post reported, citing people familiar with the meeting.
On the first day of the Trump administration, the Senate confirmed Kelly as Homeland Security secretary. But seven months later, Trump asked him to be his second chief of staff, a job Kelly called the hardest he had ever taken on.
After becoming chief of staff, Kelly joked at a Homeland Security event, “The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security. But I did something wrong, and God punished me, I guess.”