Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Over the past 24 hours, President Trump has been privately asking many people who they think should be his new chief of staff, according to three sources with direct knowledge.

What's happening: Trump has asked confidants what they think about the idea of installing Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, as John Kelly's permanent replacement, according to these three sources. Trump has also mentioned three other candidates besides Meadows, according to a source with direct knowledge. I don't yet have their names.

Nick Ayers, previously considered the favorite, is out of the running to be Kelly's replacement, according to sources with direct knowledge.

  • "Nick couldn't give POTUS a two-year commitment, so he's going to help him on the outside instead," one of these sources told me. (This news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.)
  • Ayers is expected to run the pro-Trump outside group America First, according to another source with direct knowledge. Trump will make a decision on Kelly's replacement by the end of the year, the source said.

Between the lines: Trump doesn't know what he's going to do. Ayers, the vice president's chief of staff, was his first choice for the job. Jared and Ivanka, who have been determined to get rid of Kelly, have advocated for Ayers, who has been secretly discussing the job with Trump in the executive residence for months.

  • The hitch: Ayers told Trump he'd only commit to taking the job until next spring — as chief caretaker until Trump finds a permanent solution. Trump has privately asked for a two-year commitment, and he didn't appreciate that Ayers wanted to announce an end date.
  • Ayers has refused to be announced as permanent chief and told Trump he deserves a two-year commitment from whomever replaces Kelly, according to sources familiar with their conversations. Even people opposing Ayers have told me that if he'd wanted the job, he could have had it.
  • The bottom line: This has left Trump scratching around for a new chief after announcing on Saturday that Kelly will leave the White House at the end of the year.

Behind the scenes: On Friday night, the most senior White House staff and their spouses, around 50 in all, sat around a long table for Christmas dinner in the State Dining Room of the executive residence. Christmas trees lined the walls and waiters served squash soup, fish and chocolate cake. A military choir sang Christmas carols, "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World," and a military band played.

  • Ayers showed up late to the dinner, several guests noticed. Unbeknownst to most everyone there, he'd been meeting with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Kelly to secretly discuss the terms of Kelly's departure and Ayers' likely ascent to chief of staff, according to two sources briefed on the meeting.
  • They decided Kelly would announce his departure to staff on Monday. But Trump got ahead of him, announcing his exit to reporters on Saturday in an impromptu press gaggle on the White House lawn.
  • Two guests described the dinner as "awkward" because the elephant in the room — Trump's plan to oust Kelly and replace him with Ayers — wasn't brought up as the two sat at the table.
  • Instead, sources recalled, Trump gave a generic pep talk: "We are doing a great job. You guys all work hard. Chief Kelly has done a great job."
  • "We all knew something was up, but nobody talked about it," one dinner attendee told me.

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