News that Nick Ayers, the presumptive successor to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, basically said “thanks, but no thanks” to the job offer has only served to confirm a growing sense that this is a White House in turmoil. No one, it seems, wants to helm a ship that is already leaking—especially when the ship’s captain keeps steering toward more icebergs.
Donald Trump is not the first president to face serious challenges and scandals, so why is he having a hard time finding and retaining a chief of staff? I think there are several things at play here.
Because Trump practices a sort of transactional model of internal leadership (as opposed to transformational leadership), he really can’t rely on people doing things to help him (out of the goodness of their heart). He doesn’t have a coherent or inspirational worldview that the political set has bought into—no “compassionate conservatism” or “hope and change,” and he hasn’t engendered the kind of personal loyalty that would cause someone to set aside their own self-interest.
Others (see John Kelly and James Mattis) have done so for the sake of the nation, but never out of some personal loyalty or admiration for Trump. What this means is that you do something for Trump if you think it will help you, knowing that he will reciprocate with the same kind of conditional loyalty. This works well when Trump’s stock is high. But when times start looking tough, the groupies thin out.
For a generation now, the chief of staff position has been thought of as one that comes with power and bestows an elite status. Some chiefs are stronger than others. But it was the kind of title that, having earned it, made you a lifetime member of the club. You were now a bigtime player in the world of politics. You could dine out on this for years at cocktail parties, corporate gigs, and paid speeches. Or you could parlay it into your own political career (see Rahm Emanuel).
It seems inconceivable that an ambitious political operative like Nick Ayers, 36, would turn down such a title—unless there were compelling reasons to do so. The chance of being a White House chief of staff would serve as the pinnacle of a young career. It’s the kind of opportunity you don’t pass up. Put in a couple solid years in this role, and you can parlay it into almost anything. Just ask Dick Cheney, who served as a young chief of staff to Gerald Ford.
So why would Ayers say no? Sure, I know he wants to move back to Georgia. What is more, the fact that he’s a multi-millionaire may make accepting this kind of grueling and thankless job less appealing.
But for a lifelong political operative like Ayers, who has shown no aversion to the kind of campaign work that is inherently chaotic and difficult and who has made a career out of outmaneuvering adversaries in a business that is always tainted with a sort of Machiavellian milieu, it would have to be truly toxic for him to walk away. What is more, there would have to be a sense that it’s no sure thing.
It’s one thing to endure a difficult job for a couple of years if you know you can cash in once it’s over. For decades, this is an assumed part of the bargain. You put your life on hold for a few years, sleep with your Blackberry on your chest at night, and then once it’s over you reap the rewards. You make this huge sacrifice (your health, your happiness, your family), but there’s a rainbow at the end.
Except, what if there’s not? What if, at the end of it all, not only are you not feted and celebrated and remunerated handsomely; what if after being humiliated by the president and fired, you’re then blackballed from jobs and TV contracts, and chased out of restaurants? And maybe indicted?
What makes this curious is that one of the reasons Trump might have a hard time attracting top talent isn’t really applicable to Ayers. An older chief of staff (let’s say an ex-CEO) might come into the job with the expectation of actually running the show, or at least the staff. A CEO, after all, is used to being the principal, not serving one. But Ayers, a career staffer, would have more seamlessly fit into a paradigm where Trump has his hands in everything, and where the chief’s job entails assisting the president, implementing his orders, and serving as his hatchet man (when he’s not firing people on Twitter, Trump famously outsources this role to his CoS).
Absent the guarantee of a golden parachute and a soft landing, and given the guarantee of an excruciatingly tough job with a capricious boss, one that could be dramatically compounded by the fact that Robert Mueller would presumably issue his report on the next chief’s watch, it’s at least understandable why he would walk away from what should have been his life’s goal. But it appears he’s not the only one turning up his nose. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin are also, reportedly, “sending out [the] same signals” that they aren’t interested, either.
Don’t worry. Trump will find someone willing to take this job. There’s always someone. But the fact that people are actually saying “no” to what would otherwise be the opportunity of a lifetime tells you everything you need to know about the direction top Republican insiders believe this administration is headed.