DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen destined to leave, but timing unclear, sources say

Will Kirstjen Nielsen be leaving Trump admin?

Sources familiar with President Trump's thinking said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen is destined to leave the administration, but the timing remains unclear — as do the repercussions the move could have within the White House. Any move involving Nielsen could set off something of a White House chain reaction, and that may influence what does or does not happen, and the timing therein. 

Nielsen has fallen in and out of favor with Mr. Trump, and she may fall victim to a sense of White House frustration with its stalled immigration agenda, even though Nielsen has been a vocal advocate for Trump policies. If Mr. Trump were to ditch Nielsen, he will have removed his two fiercest Cabinet immigration policy advocates — former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his DHS secretary. 

Mr. Trump's frustrations do not always result in firings or resignations. Nielsen's status is influenced by another factor: the president's satisfaction, or lack thereof, with Chief of Staff John Kelly. Nielsen was Kelly's chief of staff at DHS and followed him to the White House. Kelly has made it clear he would oppose the firing of Nielsen or her forced resignation. 

If the president were to dump Nielsen, many sources familiar with the White House see an inevitable clash between Mr. Trump and Kelly — one that could result in Kelly's departure. Interpretations of the quality of Mr. Trump's relationship with Kelly vary.

Mr. Trump has been advised to bring on a chief of staff better suited to and familiar with the rough and tumble of a re-election campaign. He is weighing that advice, sources said, more seriously than before the midterms.

According to four sources, Nick Ayers, currently chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, is the leading contender to replace Kelly — if Kelly departs. 

Ayers is considered one of the best political strategists in Trump world, and advocates say he could provide crucial help to the White House, as previous chiefs of staff have, in meshing with and reinforcing the re-election campaign messaging, strategy, presidential travel and fundraising. Ayers was important to Pence's arrival on the Trump ticket, worked at a high level on the transition and is considered deeply loyal to the Trump agenda. 

Others mentioned as possible successors to Kelly include Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy

Mulvaney's name has surfaced before as chief of staff and in the past he has expressed interest. Those close to Mulvaney said he has cooled to the idea. But he remains a contender and may have adopted the strategy of seeming less interested to improve his chances. 

Mnuchin remains close to Mr. Trump and his family and has been a stalwart since the campaign and through the transition. Mnuchin has also been a staunch advocate for Mr. Trump's economic and sanctions policy. Even so, he may lack the necessary political skills for a re-election campaign. 

McCarthy has forged a strong relationship with Mr. Trump and has considerable political skills. House GOP sources said he appears content to stay in the chamber and emerge as minority leader when the new Congress commenced early next year. 

The Nielsen saga has yet to play out. As one source said, "things are stagnant" in terms of decision making. 

Meanwhile, the White House counsel's office, visibly under-staffed, is trying to recruit high-visibility legal talent for coming House Democratic investigations. There is also a push, according to sources, to place highly experienced lawyers in prominent Cabinet agencies likely to face House Democratic inquiries. These may be among the most important short-term personnel decisions for the Trump White House, though they will likely generate few headlines or public commentary. 

On top of that, Mr. Trump is still looking for an attorney general nominee. That process has been bogged down by White House fretting over Senate elections that in Arizona turned against the Republican nominee, and the ongoing Florida Senate recount. In essence, the White House appears to be holding off, wanting to know how large the Senate GOP majority will be before settling on a nominee -- in part to see how many votes it could spare if the confirmation fight becomes difficult. 

Lastly, Mr. Trump needs to replace outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. The boomlet for State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert appears to have faded, and based on her recent appearances at the White House, namely the election night party, U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Night Craft may have moved into the lead.