Nick Ayers: The Swampiest of the Swamp Creatures

All of the political buzz these days is about who will replace John Kelly as Trump’s new chief of staff. Frankly, I’m less interested in who will ultimately take that job as I am in why Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, turned it down.

Part of my curiosity goes back to a piece my colleague Martin Longman wrote a few weeks ago about why Trump was so suddenly worried about Pence’s loyalty. Even back then, we knew that Kelly was on his way out and Ayers was the heir apparent.

The [NYT] article mentions that Trump is seriously considering replacing his own chief of staff with Nick Ayers, who currently has the position with the vice-president, so perhaps this is his weird way of vetting Ayers. That’s one possibility.

It is also interesting to note what Anthony Scaramucci told Ryan Lizza about Ayers back in August of 2017, shortly after he’d taken the position as Pence’s chief of staff.

“Why do you think Nick’s there, bro?” Scaramucci asked me, referring to Nick Ayers, Pence’s recently installed chief of staff. “Are you stupid?” He continued, “Why is Nick there? Nick’s there to protect the Vice-President because the Vice-President can’t believe what the fuck is going on.”

On Saturday, the Times, citing conversations with seventy-five Republicans, reported that two of Pence’s aides, including Ayers, have told other Republicans that the Vice-President, in the words of the Times, “wants to be ready” to run for President in 2020 in case the opportunity arises …

But what did Scaramucci mean when he told me that Pence couldn’t “believe” what was going on? And what was he getting at when he asked me to think about why Ayers had been hired? At the time, I took his reference to what was “going on” to mean the general dysfunction in the White House. But, as the Times noted over the weekend, Ayers’s appointment was “a striking departure from vice presidents’ long history of elevating a government veteran to be their top staff member. Mr. Ayers had worked on many campaigns but never in the federal government.” Was Scaramucci suggesting that Ayers was meant to protect Pence from the fallout if and when Trump collapses politically, resigns, decides not to run for reëlection, or is impeached?

With even Trump admitting to his friends that he might be impeached after the Democrats take control of the House–and rumors that Republicans are privately discussing abandoning the president–those concerns are even more relevant today than they were more than a year ago.

As Lizza pointed out, Ayers’s appointment as the Vice President’s chief of staff was a striking departure from historical precedent. Back in March, Vicky Ward did a deep dive into Ayers’s background, which is worth a read. In short, this 36 year-old multi-millionaire is the swampiest of what most of us think about when we talk about the D.C. swamp. His work on campaigns is a lesson in the dark money operations unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. What really caught my eye was how Ayers managed to rip off Tim Pawlenty while working on his 2012 presidential campaign, something that seems to be his stock in trade, even as it has gone almost unnoticed by the candidates themselves.

Taking advantage of the unprecedented steps Trump took in his refusal to divest himself from his business interests while president, Ayers has maintained ownerships and partnerships with political consulting firms and media ad-buying companies while serving as the Vice President’s chief of staff. Even before he took that role, he set up a PAC specifically for the purposes of paying himself for consulting with Pence. This makes Karl Rove look like a paragon of virtue by comparison.

But Ayers didn’t just turn down the offer to be Trump’s chief of staff. He made this announcement as well:

It is impossible to know exactly what Ayers is up to. In November, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed suit against Ayers and one of his companies, Freedom Frontier, for illegally laundering dark money to political campaigns, noting it’s nefarious ties to the Vice President’s chief of staff. So perhaps he needed to get out of town before the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that he’s exiting a White House that is about to implode as a way to try to save his own reputation. Or maybe his plans to preserve Pence’s options as the next POTUS are better served from outside the administration.

It is too soon to tell exactly why Ayers turned Trump down and chose this moment to exit the White House. But one thing you can bet on: this isn’t the last we’ve heard of Nick Ayers.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.