White House chief of staff John Kelly listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on tax policy with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Oct. 31, 2017.
White House chief of staff John Kelly listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on tax policy with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Oct. 31, 2017.

WASHINGTON - Serious contenders are hiding from view. Celebrity hangers-on are applying via Twitter. Fresh names circulate practically on the hour. And the man in charge is stoking much of the confusion.

President Donald Trump's hunt for a new chief of staff has taken on the feel of a reality TV show.

No leading name has emerged in the days since Trump's preferred candidate to replace John Kelly bowed out. But the void has quickly filled with drama. British journalist Piers Morgan suggested he would be a good fit in an op-ed for “The Daily Mail,” while former major league slugger Jose Canseco tweeted his interest to Trump. Speculation has swirled around an array of Trump associates, prompting some to distance themselves from the job.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited the White House this week, he insisted it was merely to see the Christmas decorations.

Trump met Thursday with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to discuss the job, according to a person familiar with the meeting who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The chaotic process is hardly a novelty for the Trump administration, which has struggled with high staff turnover and attracting top talent, but it underscored the tumult of Trump's Washington. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to members o
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington after attending President Donald Trump speaking on the opioid crisis, Oct. 26, 2017.

Post a risky proposition

In past administrations, chief of staff was a sought-after job, typically awarded after a careful process. Now, many view the job as a risky proposition, given Trump's propensity for disorder and his resistance to being managed.

For his part, Trump insisted Thursday that the process is moving along.

“We're interviewing people now for chief of staff,” he said, adding that the short list is now “Five people. Really good ones. Terrific people. Mostly well-known, but terrific people.”

Trump himself likes to feed the drama, dropping hints about the number of candidates in the running and bantering with journalists about who wants the job. The erratic search recalled the transition period before Trump took office, when prospective aides and television personalities paraded before a pack of journalists in the lobby of Trump Tower.

FILE - U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer speaks at the 9th China Business Conference at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, May 1, 2018.

‘Sad to watch’

Author Chris Whipple, an expert on chiefs of staff, called the search process “sad to watch.”

In his first two years, Trump devalued the position by failing to empower anyone to perform the job, and now he's turned the search for a replacement into a reality show,” said Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book on the subject. “The only thing more broken and dysfunctional than the White House itself seems to be the search for the new White House chief of staff.”

The president's hunt for a new chief reverted to square one over the weekend when Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, took himself out of the running and decided that he would instead leave the White House. The announcement surprised even senior staffers who believed that Ayers' ascension was a done deal.

Trump then turned to a list of other candidates that was said to include Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Other possible options mentioned were U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, though both signaled they were happy in their current roles.

By Wednesday, Meadows was out of the running, with the White House saying Trump thinks he is needed in Congress.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders talks to reporters during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Oct. 29, 2018.

Getting a look?

Throughout the week, a number of other names were floated, including former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, White House communications director Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It was not clear how many of those options were being taken seriously.

The breadth of speculation provided on-camera time for many to discuss the speculation. Bossie called it “humbling” to be considered while acknowledging that he did not know if it was a serious list of names. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said on CNN that he would decline the job if offered, though it was never clear he was a serious contender.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens a
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a dinner to honor evangelical leadership in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Aug. 27, 2018.

Kushner being considered

Sanders responded Thursday to speculation that Trump's aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could be up for the job, saying that she was “not aware that he's under consideration.” But she appeared to leave some wiggle room, adding, “He will be great in any role that the president chooses to put him in.” 

According to a person familiar with the matter, people have been reaching out to the president to suggest the idea, but Kushner believes that he can serve the president best in his current role. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal discussions.

A time frame for a decision remained uncertain, with some speculation about the possibility of two people taking over the responsibilities of the chief of staff. And Trump made clear in an interview with Fox News on Thursday that he was still soliciting advice.

“Well, I want somebody that's strong, but I want somebody that thinks like I do. It's my vision — it is my vision, after all,” Trump said. “At the same time, I'm open to ideas.”