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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump faces three clear and imminent threats as he heads toward his 2020 reelection race — the economy slipping, Congress flipping and a Russia probe drip, drip, dripping. And few inside the White House feel he is yet prepared or staffed for the hell about to hit them. 

Why it matters: The combination of hazards bearing down on the president is more intense than at any previous point in his presidency, current and former administration officials tell Axios.

One sign of a new sense of urgency: West Wing officials widely believe that chief of staff John Kelly’s departure is imminent and that Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Pence, will replace him.

  • As we reported right after the midterms, Ayers' backers have been telling the president he has the sharp political instincts to remake the West Wing to better combat the hazards ahead.
  • Jared and Ivanka have boosted him. But he has a number of detractors who have been trying to convince the president he’d be a disaster.

The multi-front war confronting Trump's evolving team:

  1. The booming economy suddenly looks vulnerable. An unpredictable trade war with China is injecting huge amounts of volatility into an already volatile system. Sharp stock market plunges affect Trump’s psyche, sources close to Trump say. He often asks aides: “What’s the Dow doing today?” A former administration official told Axios that Trump always needs a  simple metric to use to brag about his performance. During the 2016 primaries it was the polls. When polls were no longer good for him, he replaced them with the booming stock market. Now that previously trusty measure of success is no longer boast-worthy. Trump still has impressive GDP and employment numbers to call on, but forecasters see trouble ahead. 
  2. Staffing remains a problem — just as Democrats are about to take control of the House, imposing massive new demands on the West Wing. The White House Counsel’s office lacks firepower to defend Trump against an investigatory onslaught. And nobody, besides Trump, is empowered to be in charge of this West Wing. Senior officials have long viewed Kelly as living on borrowed time; Trump has long been fed up with him. Trump is also unhappy with some key Cabinet officials, and is eager for a reshuffle in the new year.
  3. Robert Mueller appears to be concluding his investigation. We’ll soon learn much more of what he’s gathered from Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. Cohen is most troubling to sources close to Trump. He saw far more of Trump’s personal life and business affairs than Manafort or Michael Flynn ever did. Cohen appears to his friends to be determined to bring down Trump to redeem himself.

In a second major move, Trump is expected today to name Heather Nauert, top State Department spokesperson, to succeed Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as Bloomberg News and others first reported.

  • During her time at the State Department, Nauert has been part of 26 overseas trips (some with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and most with current Secretary Mike Pompeo) totaling more than 150,000 miles.
  • At her Senate confirmation hearings, Democrats can be expected to question her diplomatic experience and qualifications for the job. (She was best known for her career on Fox News before she joined the State Department.)
  • The role — reflecting Trump's instincts, the precedent set by Haley, and Pompeo's desires — will be focused on providing a public face for U.S. diplomacy.

Be smart: Between the outside threats and the coming personnel shuffle, the sense of uncertainty inside the West Wing is at an all-time high. 

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Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

Texas abortion law remains in effect after appeals court ruling

Pro- and anti-abortion protesters outside the Supreme Court as arguments begin about the Texas abortion law on Capitol Hill in November. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A U.S. appeals court transferred a challenge to Texas' law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy to the state supreme court in a 2-1 vote on Monday evening.

Why it matters: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision means the country's most restrictive abortion law can remain in place for the time being.

5 hours ago - World

At least 2 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least two people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Monday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Axios over the phone that two people had been confirmed to have died in the disaster.