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UPDATE: Perdue protégé could be Trump’s next gatekeeper


Nick Ayers, a well-connected Georgia Republican operative who cut his teeth working for former Gov. Sonny Perdue, has resurfaced as a leading contender for White House chief of staff as President Donald Trump’s current top aide is on the way out.

The 36-year-old Mableton native has long been seen as a possible replacement for John Kelly, the retired U.S. Marine Corps general who has reportedly feuded often with the president. A fresh wave of speculation has emerged in recent weeks, and on Saturday Ayers’ name was again prominent after Trump said Kelly would be leaving the post by the end of the year. 

As he left for Philadelphia on Saturday, Trump told reporters, "John Kelly will be leaving, I don’t know if I can say ‘retiring.’ But, he’s a great guy. John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year." 

As for the new chief of staff, the president said, "We’ll be announcing who will be taking John’s place … over the next day or two ..."

As the vice president’s top aide, Ayers reportedly won Trump’s admiration for insulating Mike Pence from the chaos that’s frequently engulfed the West Wing. He’s also gained the trust of Trump’s oldest children, Don Jr. and Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to media reports.  

Ayers is known as a skilled political operator with ambitions of his own. His name was briefly floated as a possible Republican gubernatorial contender last year, but he passed on the opportunity after Pence offered him the chance to be his top staffer. 

Ayers’ meteoric rise from Perdue’s teenage “body man” to multimillionaire with the ear of the president has made him the envy of political consultants everywhere. 

He took time off from Kennesaw State University in 2002 to serve as Perdue’s right-hand man during his underdog bid for governor, an around-the-clock position that had him serving as his valet, adviser and protégé. He moved up quickly, running Perdue’s successful reelection campaign four years later. 

It was during the latter race that Ayers was pulled over by a Georgia State trooper on suspicion of driving under the influence. Video of the encounter showed Ayers telling the officer about his political position. The charges were later reduced to reckless driving. Ayers apologized and Perdue stuck by him.

He went on to become the youngest-ever head the Republican Governors Association during a period of rapid state-level expansion for the GOP. 

He then ran Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign. Soon thereafter, conservative commentator Matt Lewis labeled Ayers “the most-hated campaign operative in America” for his “utterly transparent” self-promotion. 

But that wasn’t enough to stunt Ayers’ political rise. 

He built a consulting business that was wildly successful in helping a slew of Republicans get elected, including Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue — but he also drew outside scrutiny for how quickly it grew in such a short period of time

Ayers’ federal financial disclosure estimated he was worth between $12 million and $54 million, an eye-popping sum for a self-made man who has yet to see the other side of 40. 

His business ventures included a stake in an ad-buying firm that purchased air time in many of the races Ayers worked on as a consultant, as well as farmland in Georgia. 

Ayers said he and his family divested from his companies when he came to Washington. 

Ayers had worked for several years as a political strategist for Pence when Trump tapped the Indiana governor as his running mate. He became a top Pence counselor during the presidential campaign and helped lead America First Policies, a super PAC supporting the White House, from his office in suburban Atlanta before he was sworn in as the vice president’s chief of staff in July 2017. 

Since arriving in Washington, Ayers’ star has quickly grown. He and his former boss Sonny Perdue are said to be the driving forces behind Trump’s surprise endorsement of Brian Kemp, and Ayers helped organize Pence and Trump’s recent visits to Georgia. 

Should he be offered and accept the position as Trump’s third chief of staff, Ayers would be taking one of Washington’s most high-profile yet grueling jobs ahead of a consequential reelection campaign. He would be forced to contend with a boss who’s notoriously hard to manage, as well as the special counsel’s Russia investigation and a volley of subpoenas from newly-empowered House Democrats. 

That said, Ayers has several prominent allies scattered across Washington who also have the ear of the president, including Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Sonny Perdue, now Trump’s agriculture chief. 

Read more: The other new chief of staff: Georgia’s Nick Ayers


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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.