Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

When John Kelly publicly announced this summer that President Trump had asked him to stay on as White House chief of staff until 2020, the most common reactions in Trump's inner circle were bemusement and, in some cases, laughter — no one thought it was real. And they were right.

What's happening: Trump has long been casting about for a replacement and has, on several occasions, made what in any normal world would be taken as an official job offer to Mike Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, 36. But when Trump offers you a job, it's not always as it seems. He has discussed the job with Ayers sporadically for months. Sources close to Pence's chief tell me that in recent weeks, Ayers has privately expressed a "Who knows?" attitude: It could happen tomorrow, or in several months, or maybe never.

The case for Ayers, according to his boosters: He has sharp political instincts and business acumen — and that's what some believe Trump needs in his chief job heading into the 2020 presidential election.

  • Ayers' supporters say Pence's office is one of the few well-functioning and low-drama parts of the building.
  • Jared and Ivanka are major supporters — and maybe that's all Ayers needs to overcome his internal enemies.
  • But the opposition to Ayers is substantial inside the administration. His internal opponents attack him as too slick by half and ruthlessly ambitious.
  • Some have been circulating a Huffington Post piece, "Mike Pence's Man in the Swamp," that digs into how Ayers made a fortune in political consulting.

At the White House’s election night gathering, Trump huddled with Ayers over to the side of the room towards the end of the evening, according to a source who was there.

  • Some of Ayers' colleagues at the party assumed the two were discussing the chief job. And by the next day internal opposition to the idea revved up again.
  • Ayers declined to comment for this story.

The other official who was considered a main contender for the chief job, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, appears to be out of consideration.

  • A source close to Mulvaney texted me: "Regarding the banter about the chief of staff job. ... Before this goes any further you should know that he is no longer interested in the cos role. He would be far more interested in another cabinet position if anything."
  • I responded that the aide seemed to be acknowledging that Mulvaney was once interested in the job. (And indeed, Mulvaney had dinner with Trump several months ago to discuss it.) So what changed? And what cabinet positions would he be interested in?
  • The source close to Mulvaney replied: "Who wouldn't be interested, it was flattering to be even considered. ... Other roles? As someone who has run several large organizations important to this White House, that answer is TBD."

The bottom line: We still don't know when, or even if, Kelly is getting replaced. That's why Axios hasn't written a single story saying he's gone.

  • At this point, I'd need both Kelly's and Trump's tongues notarized before writing a "Kelly is out" story.

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