The vice president’s office hasn’t been one of the competing power centers in President Donald Trump’s faction-riven White House – but the recent arrival of Nick Ayers, the veteran campaign operative now serving as Mike Pence’s chief of staff, is starting to change that.
Ayers’ hire, according to interviews with eight current and former administration officials, was less about a secret campaign to challenge Trump in 2020 and more about helping the vice president – who, at just 58, has a political future ahead of him in the post-Trump era – preserve his future political options, whatever they may be.
A veteran political operative, Ayers had for months been quietly warning the vice president that Trump’s troubles could cause collateral damage and that he needed to take a more aggressive posture on a range of issues to ensure he enters the post-Trump era on solid ground, according to two White House officials.
Ayers arrived in the West Wing as Reince Priebus, one of the few White House aides with Washington experience, was replaced by retired Marine general John Kelly as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Ayers, a 34-year-old Georgia native, replaced Josh Pitcock, the long-serving Pence aide distinguished by his quiet and inoffensive manner.
Among the reasons Ayers didn’t join the White House in January was a long-running feud with former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who reportedly blocked his ascension to the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in December and, according to one White House aide, worked to keep him out of the administration. Priebus has said the decision was not personal – that he considers Ayers a friend and wanted him in Washington – but that he wanted a member of the RNC to succeed him.
Last week’s passing of the baton from Priebus to Kelly and from Pitcock to Ayers has heralded broader changes in the White House – reining in presidential aides and prompting more assertiveness from the vice president’s allies.
With the exception of political director Bill Stepien, a former Chris Christie aide, the political operation is now staffed almost entirely by Pence World operatives – from Ayers himself to congressional liaison Marc Short, who moonlights as a surrogate to top-dollar donors, to former Pence aide Marty Obst, who is leading the super PAC charged with supporting the administration and hammering its enemies.
It wasn’t just Pence who wanted Ayers back in the West Wing. Among those encouraging him to join the White House staff were Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as the president’s son, Don Jr., all of whom he worked closely with during the campaign, where he served as the chief conduit between Pence World and Trump Tower. “Nick previously served as a key asset contributing to the success of the campaign and is a great addition to the team,” Kushner told POLITICO in a statement.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders added: “The vice president is committed and dedicated to helping the president and assisting him in helping his agenda and committed to his reelection in 2020.”
Ayers is a schmoozer whose crisis-management skills the vice president has come to rely on. Given their close relationship, several administration officials said that his hiring was unsurprising. Nobody was more frustrated than Ayers, for example, at the sluggish response to reports that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had deceived Pence about his meetings with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak – including the vice president himself, according to a person familiar with the situation – and Ayers has consistently pushed Pence to get off his hind legs and show some attitude.
During the campaign, Ayers served at Bannon’s behest as the chief conduit between Pence World and the president’s core team, working with them on the vice-presidential vetting process, for example – and spent the last two weeks of the race traveling with the president. “He’s a Trump guy,” Bannon said.
But some members of the administration felt that the synergy between the two worlds that developed on the campaign trail evaporated with Ayers’ absence from the White House, even though he’s been spending two days a week in Washington since November.
Ayers declined to comment for this piece, as did a spokesman for Pence.
Though they have grown close over the past three years, some who know the vice president well say that Ayers is a departure from the sort of aides with whom the vice president typically surrounds himself. “Throughout his career, he has consciously surrounded himself with people who are not super political,” according to Ryan Streeter, who served as deputy chief of staff for Pence during his time as Indiana governor, when he would scold aides he overheard strategizing in the office for “playing politics.”
“He has always trusted his own political instincts,” Streeter said.
On the campaign trail and for much of his time in the White House, Pence has gone out of his way to be a loyal lieutenant – serving as the first line of defense for the president on a range of crises, often at the expense of his own credibility, and keeping his head down during internal policy battles. He stayed quiet even on issues close to his heart, like the executive order on religious liberty that Trump signed in May, according to a senior White House aide.
Pitcock, who is reserved by nature, did little to check those impulses. Though he had spent a dozen years by Pence’s side, the vice president – who harbors ambition for a political future beyond the Trump administration – found himself pining for Ayers’ sharp elbows amidst the daily turmoil of the administration and called him frequently for advice and counsel.
White House aides say the vice president does seem to have gotten a jolt of energy. He has for the first time taken substantive positions on some of the most controversial debates within the administration. In response to entreaties from National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, he has become a key voice in favor of increasing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, help to building consensus within the administration and to make the case to the president.
“For the first six months of the administration, Pence was sort of afraid to take any sort of substantive position on anything, in any deliberations,” said a senior White House aide. Sanders disputed that characterization, telling POLITICO she had seen the vice president weigh in on internal policy debates, though she declined to name any.
Pence has also been quietly ramping up his political activity, cultivating Republican donors at small private dinners and headlining an event alongside Ivanka Trump that raised more than a million dollars for Republican candidates. His outreach to the party’s wealthiest donors doesn’t require much political calculation: It’s an area that Trump, who has little interest in glad-handing deep-pocketed donors, has left wide open for him.
Pence, for example, has longstanding ties to the Koch brothers’ political network, which was a strong supporter of his governorship but stayed on the sidelines of the 2016 election due to widespread opposition among donors to Trump’s candidacy. Short, whose adorns his office with Pence paraphernalia, is a former president of the group that oversees the Koch brothers’ political activism, which has declined over the past 18 months.
Few believe there’s a conceivable chance that the Pence – whose loyalty to Trump has at times bordered on obsequiousness – would launch a primary campaign against him in 2020. He denied a New York Times report over the weekend that he was eyeing a presidential campaign, which he called not only “categorically false” but “disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team” – though Ayers’ aggressiveness was evident in the vigor of his response.
“The guy’s not stupid, he’s smart, and he’s proven pretty well that he’s loyal to Trump,” said Stanley Hubbard, a Minnesota billionaire and longtime Republican donor. “I think it’d ridiculous to think that he’d be so foolish.”
But there’s little doubt the 58-year-old vice president harbors ambitions for a political future beyond Trump. A former radio talk-show host, Pence has spent most of his professional life in politics – a dozen years in congress and four in the governor’s mansion, where he fielded entreaties to run for president rom leaders of the tea party movement as well as from some of the party’s leading intellectuals – first in in 2012 and again in 2016.
Ayers is around to ensure that if Trump is out of the picture for one reason or another his man is ready. He is elbowing his way into meeting at which the vice president was previously unrepresented and, while Pitcock would limit himself to delivering brief updates on Pence’s upcoming events, Ayers shares his views on the White House’s messaging and political strategy freely. He is making himself a ubiquitous figure, pacing the hallways on his cell phone.
“He walks around like he owns the place,” said a senior White House aide.