President Donald Trump is basking in the first big legislative victory of his presidency — but the strong end to a shaky first year in office hasn’t stopped him from privately ruminating on potential changes he could make to his inner circle in 2018.
Speculation about additions to the cast of characters in Season 2 of Trump’s West Wing has ramped up as the administration braces itself for a wave of staff departures expected in the coming weeks, according to a dozen White House aides and outside advisers who have spoken with the president.
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In recent weeks, these people say, Trump has been particularly high on Larry Kudlow, an outside economic adviser to the president and a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan. He helped lobby senators on the tax bill and was on hand at the White House on Wednesday for the South Lawn celebration after it passed.
Kudlow has been discussed internally as a potential successor to National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who has announced no immediate plans to leave but has told friends he will be weighing his options over the holidays.
A changing of the guard is normal for any administration hitting the one-year mark. But Trump, who began shedding senior officials just a month into his presidency, continues to take comfort in the outside political hands who ushered him into the White House — and has lately been talking them up behind closed doors.
At a private Christmas party at the White House last week, according to several attendees, the president gave multiple shout-outs from the podium to former campaign spokesman Jason Miller, now a CNN contributor, as well as to lobbyist and former campaign adviser David Urban. Insiders said Urban remains Trump’s top choice for U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, but could also come into the administration in some other role.
Trump has been spending more time with former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has long craved a West Wing role. The president even offered support on Twitter for Lewandowski’s new book, “Let Trump Be Trump.”
The president met with Lewandowski and several White House aides on Wednesday in the Oval Office for more than an hour, amid what outside advisers describe as a “big push” to get Lewandowski and former deputy campaign manager David Bossie into the White House.
A person familiar with the meeting — which also included Brad Parscale, who ran the digital operation for Trump’s campaign, and other West Wing aides — said Lewandowski got into an argument with White House political director Bill Stepien over what he views as the administration’s lack of direction.
Trump’s admiration for his old standbys is seen by some as a potential challenge for his chief of staff John Kelly, who since arriving in July has succeeded in ridding the West Wing of big personalities who stayed on after the campaign and short-circuiting direct lines to Trump himself.
In recent weeks, Kelly, according to frequent visitors to the West Wing, has started to do “bed checks”—that is, walking through the lobby waiting room to get a sense of who is coming and going from the White House.
And lately, Trump has been turning for political advice to Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, who speaks with the president regularly and joined him for lunch in the White House on Wednesday.
Another recent regular on Trump’s call list, according to White House insiders: Matt Schlapp, a former Bush administration official and current chairman of the American Conservative Union, whom Trump enjoys grilling for political advice. Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes, works in the White House communications department, is another original Trump loyalist, one of the lone voices who stood by Trump in the days following the release of the damaging “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016.
“Just because the president called somebody he has a relationship with for a long time to thank them for their support does not mean he’s making them a job offer,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders of the president’s recent conversations with former campaign hands. A White House official added that Trump’s recent conversations with his friends and former aides are nothing new, but rather a constant of his presidency.
In the aftermath of Roy Moore’s defeat in the Alabama Senate race, the president is increasingly focused on Republicans’ electoral prospects and has complained to friends that the White House’s political operation is lacking, according to multiple sources close to the president.
The president’s frustration has also put White House political director Bill Stepien’s future in the administration in doubt, though White House officials stressed that there are no immediate plans for a shakeup of his department. Trump has also begun weighing a revamped and expanded political operation that can begin preparing for his reelection bid.
A number of staff changes are already in the works and are expected to be formalized soon by the White House.
Jim Carroll, a former White House lawyer, will be named deputy chief of staff, according to White House officials.
Carroll would succeed Kirstjen Nielsen, who departed the White House earlier this month to become Homeland Security secretary. Nielsen, who knew Carroll when they both served in the George W. Bush administration, played a central role in picking her successor, according to a person familiar with the process. Carroll is already working out of Nielsen’s old office — which originally belonged to chief strategist Steve Bannon and housed his famous whiteboard — according to several White House officials.
Deputy national ecurity adviser Dina Powell, Office of Public Liaison Deputy Communications Director Omarosa Manigault Newman and Domestic Policy Council Deputy Director Paul Winfree all announced their departures this month. Powell is expected to stay at least until February.
Deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn is also expected to exit the White House early next year, leaving open another senior position in the West Wing. That change has not been set in stone, White House officials said.
But the White House isn’t facing a wholesale rebirth. Several senior administration officials are planning to stay for now, including Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, communications director Hope Hicks and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, lending some stability to a constantly lurching ship.
Conway — who purposefully lowered her public profile earlier this year, running the White House opioid crisis efforts and working closely with the first lady on the issue — is seen internally as a person on the rise, with some suggesting her as a potential successor to Kelly as chief of staff.
Hicks, meanwhile, was initially seen as an inexperienced pick for the role of communications director, but remains, as one White House official put it, “Trump’s favorite person,” and is often requested in meetings by Cabinet officials who know that her presence there means the discussion in the meeting will be relayed back to Trump.
And legislative affairs director Marc Short, who was on the short list for president of The Heritage Foundation, is expected to remain in his senior position in the West Wing.
As the end of the year approaches and Trump dangles hints about whom he wants to bring in, White House officials have begun betting on who else will leave.
“For almost all of us, if not all of us, it’s a question of when next year,” one White House staffer told POLITICO of the exit strategy.
Current and former administration officials fear that the raft of departures could empty the administration of policy experts who understand the mechanics of government.
One former administration official warned of a “brain drain from the policy staff and an effort to turn the White House into more of a political or messaging operation.”
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.