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Vice President Pence listens to President Trump discuss the spending bill at the White House last month. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The White House kept it quiet until now, but on Friday the President nearly blocked the Vice President from getting his chosen national security adviser.

Why this matters: It's a highly unusual event, as Trump typically gives Pence a long leash on personnel appointments. This is the first time the President has tried to block Pence from filling a senior staff position. The scene also highlights — once again — the extraordinary importance Trump places on personal loyalty.

Inside the West Wing: Trump was furious when he learned Pence was bringing on Nikki Haley's deputy Jon Lerner, according to three sources familiar with the events. The President believed Lerner was a card-carrying member of the "Never Trump" movement because Lerner crafted brutal attack ads for Club for Growth's multimillion-dollar anti-Trump blitz during the Republican primaries.

  • "Why would Mike do that?" Trump wondered aloud about Pence's decision, according to two sources briefed on the President's private conversations.

Behind the scenes: Trump told Kelly to get rid of Lerner. On Friday, as turmoil unfolded, Pence's team was on the plane to Peru for the Summit of the Americas. Pence's team got wind of what was happening, and when Pence landed he called the President and talked him around on Lerner, according to administration officials familiar with the situation. Trump was in the Oval when Pence called.

  • Senior officials, including White House Counsel Don McGahn, were concerned about the logistics of Lerner dividing his time between Haley and Pence. The story in the Washington Post that broke the news of Lerner's appointment took White House officials by surprise.
  • Other officials question Lerner’s qualifications, describing him to Axios as a politico and a pollster, with little foreign policy experience. Pence's team argued internally that he'd done a great job for the past year working for Haley, has previously advised members of Congress on foreign policy and would be well-supported in Pence's office by subject matter experts.
  • The sources said Kelly told colleagues that Pence's chief of staff Nick Ayers, who orchestrated the appointment, had not "fully informed" him of Lerner's anti-Trump history. Ayers and Lerner have worked together in the past for Haley, among other campaigns.

The pushback: Ayers has told associates, however, that he briefed Kelly on Lerner and also looped in other senior officials including Haley, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Lerner's been serving as Haley's deputy and was in the room for a sensitive Syria briefing in the Situation Room on Thursday.

What's next: Pence and his team appear to have averted what would've been the VP's first personnel crisis. In the Pence team's eyes, it was a "minor confusion" that never should've escalated to the President and could've been resolved almost instantly had the Pence team not been on a plane when the drama was unfolding.

Get more stories like this by signing up for Jonathan Swan's weekly political lookahead newsletter, Axios Sneak Peek.

Go deeper

Dems race to address, preempt stimulus fraud claims

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Biden officials are working to root out the systematic fraud in unemployment and Paycheck Protection Program claims that plagued the Trump administration’s efforts to boost the economy with coronavirus relief money, Gene Sperling told House committee chairmen privately this week.

Why it matters: President Biden just signed another $1.9 trillion of aid into law, with Sperling tapped to oversee its implementation. And the administration is asking Congress to approve another $2.2 trillion for the first phase of an infrastructure package.

1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden close to picking Nick Burns as China ambassador

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there's a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden's presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.

Biden's Russian sanctions likely to achieve little

President Biden announces new sanctions against Russia. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Despite bold talk from top administration officials, there's little reason to think the Russia sanctions package President Biden announced Thursday will do anything to alter Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior or calculus.

Why it matters: While it's true some elements of the package — namely, the targeting of Russia's sovereign debt — represent significant punitive measures against Moscow, it leaves plenty of wiggle room for the Russian president.