President Trump appears poised to make Nick Ayers his third chief of staff as he prepares for re-election, replacing John Kelly with a wunderkind political operative whose confident, no-nonsense manner has ruffled feathers but also stirred admiration.
Trump is poaching the 36-year-old Ayers from Vice President Mike Pence, for whom he has served as chief of staff since the summer of last year.
Beginning in his early 20s, Ayers served as campaign manager on gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, directed the Republican Governors Association, worked on the Trump-Pence 2016 operation, and advised several Republican candidates over the years as an outside consultant.
Ayers has a demanding management style that often chafed older subordinates. But his fans say he has proven himself a smart, effective political tactician.
“He’s very results-oriented. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who don’t pull their weight, and he’s a very strategic thinker,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked with Ayers in 2012 on Mike Pawlenty’s short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination, and who counts himself a fan. "He’s been young for every job he’s ever had and he’s risen very quickly. Some people may not feel like he’s paid his dues."
Ayers' trademark assertiveness was on display last year, when he told a gathering of GOP donors that Republicans who don't unequivocally support Trump's agenda should be purged from Congress. He urged the donors to spend money to bankroll GOP primary challengers for Republican incumbents who don't get with the Trump program. Such remarks are rare for staffers, even those in senior positions, like chief of staff to the vice president.
Trump installed Kelly as chief of staff about 16 months ago to bring order to a chaotic West Wing, though granted, the president is the cause of most of the chaos.
Then serving as Homeland Security secretary, Kelly replaced Reince Priebus and immediately set about controlling access to the Oval Office and attempting to regulate the flow of information and people to Trump. At first appreciating the gravitas and discipline that Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, brought to the post, Trump eventually bristled under his chief of staff's heavy hand.
Yet even if that was not the case, some might have questioned Trump if he had decided to keep Kelly around during the 2020 campaign. For all of the chief’s strengths, politics isn’t among them.
“Kelly has huge voids,” said a Republican insider who is otherwise pleased with the job he’s done in the West Wing and requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “He does not have a political bone in his body.”
In some regard, Ayers is the next best choice to whom the president might most prefer: Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser who functioned as something of a chief of staff and consigliere to then-candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Indeed, at 37, Kushner and Ayers are roughly the same age.
Ayers’ selection as the chief of staff, if completed, is probably a welcome development for a Republican Party establishment always concerned about where Trump is getting advice.
The president is prone to field calls and seek advice from all sorts of political novices who were a part of his inner circle before he ran for president. Ayers, a clear-eyed operative who has been on the winning and losing end of campaigns, understands what it takes to succeed. That may comfort many Republicans in Washington heading into the next campaign.
“He brings a wealth of campaign experience and understands message progression,” said Ward Baker, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Nobody better to serve as chief of staff than Nick Ayers.”