The Trump White House’s longest-running personnel drama may finally be over: Chief of staff John Kelly is expected to step down in the coming days, according to two administration officials.
Kelly, a retired Marine general who joined the White House staff in July 2017, has weathered several months of rumors that the president wants him out. But the officials said this time seemed different, noting that the relationship between the president and his embattled chief of staff has recently bottomed out and that his departure seems imminent.
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The decision is not official and Trump, who has reportedly come close to firing Kelly before, could once again change his mind. Other aides cautioned that the timing of Kelly’s departure remains up in the air.
Two sources close to the situation said the White House is working to accommodate Kelly’s departure in an appropriate manner “as opposed to [the] fire-by-tweet” maneuver Trump has previously used to dismiss high-ranking officials, including ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was forced out last month. A formal announcement could occur Monday, giving Trump the weekend to strike an agreement with his chief of staff about the details surrounding his departure.
“They’re trying to put together a dignified way for Kelly to leave,” said a former White House official, who characterized the circumstance as delicate, given Kelly’s rank as a retired four-star Marine general and Trump’s oft-repeated refrain about respecting America’s military personnel.
Of course, the plan to gracefully oust Kelly will only work if he agrees to resign — something the chief of staff has long been reluctant to do — and the president refrains from firing him outright. Kelly has told friends repeatedly in recent months that, despite the grueling demands of his job and constant speculation about his relationship with the first family, he serves “at the pleasure of the president” and would never quit on his own.
Kelly was not at the White House on Friday because he had taken the day off. As a result, he was not among the senior aides who were seen with Trump as he departed for a Friday trip to Kansas City. Friday’s senior staff meeting, which is usually led by Kelly, was canceled, one of the administration officials said. Two administration officials cautioned that staff meetings are often nixed when they overlap with presidential travel.
Nick Ayers, vice president Mike Pence’s chief of staff, is a leading candidate to replace Kelly. Ayers is close to Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. But he also has West Wing rivals suspicious of his ambition.
As he departed for Kansas City, Trump ignored shouted questions about Kelly. But he did preview an announcement about a very different chief of staff.
“I can give you a little hint: It will have to do with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and succession,” he said before getting on Marine One.
White House spokespeople did not respond to repeated inquiries and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office door was closed as of Friday morning.