WASHINGTON - President Trump had no Plan B.
After announcing the exit of his chief of staff, John Kelly, and being turned down by his pick to replace him, Nick Ayers, Trump found himself Monday in an unexpected predicament - scrambling to recruit someone to help run the executive branch of the federal government and guide the administration through the political tumult and possible legal peril ahead.
In any White House, the chief of staff is arguably the most punishing position. But in this White House - a den of disorder ruled by an impulsive president - it has proved to be an especially thankless job. The two people to hold the job were left with their reputations diminished after failing to constrain the president, who often prefers to function as his own chief of staff.
Three members of Trump's Cabinet who have been discussed inside the West Wing as possible chiefs of staff - Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer - each signaled Monday that they were not interested in the position.
Considerable buzz has centered on two other contenders. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., noted his interest in the job by issuing a statement saying that "serving as Chief of Staff would be an incredible honor."
"It is not something I have been campaigning for," Meadows told reporters Monday on Capitol Hill, adding that his phone "blew up" after the Ayers news broke. "The president has a good list of candidates. I'm honored to be one of those."
And acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who traveled with Trump to Kansas City last week, is seen by the president and his allies as a loyalist.
But Trump's advisers and aides cautioned that there was not yet a front-runner. Although aides said the president is committed to finding a replacement for Kelly before the Christmas holiday, they said he has been vacillating - casting about in all corners for potential picks and frustrated by news coverage depicting his White House as a place where talented people do not want to work.
In a flurry of private conversations with family members, friends and staffers, Trump has been crowdsourcing various names to solicit feedback, according to people who have spoken with him. In turn, some of those names have wound up in media reports as candidates for the job.
Among the people seen as contenders, in addition to Meadows and Whitaker, are David Bossie, Trump's former deputy campaign manager and an outside adviser; White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor and former Trump transition chairman; Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former Texas governor; Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania; and Wayne Berman, an executive at the investment firm Blackstone and a veteran Republican operative.
There are a few other people under serious consideration by Trump whose names have not been revealed in the media, according to people familiar with the president's deliberations.
Kelly led the White House senior staff meeting Monday morning but did not mention that he would be leaving to the staff, an attendee said.
As with other aspects of Trump's presidency, the search process took on the feel of a season of "The Apprentice," his former NBC reality show. Candidates for the job are unsure of the status of the president's deliberations and are being kept largely in the dark from the White House. And they are mindful of not appearing to be pining for the job publicly.
Among some of Trump's current and former advisers, the chief-of-staff search is something of a running joke.
"It's a well-oiled machine," quipped one Republican close to the White House who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, a reference to the president's claims that oft-documented chaos does not exist. "I don't even know why they need a chief of staff. I guess they need somebody to pour the oil in once in a while, but that's a part-time job, right?"
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and oil executive, said the president's "needs are unique."
"Trump has to find someone strong enough to execute his ever-evolving plan, tolerate his abrasive, knee-jerk management style and do it in the face of a hostile media and a soon-to-be-Democratic House," Eberhart said.
Publicly, Trump has sought to project an air of nothing-to-see-here calm.
"I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff," the president said Mondayon Twitter. "Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers, a spectacular person who will always be with our #MAGA agenda. I will be making a decision soon!"
In reality, however, Trump was left at the altar.
After months of discussions, Trump decided he wanted to poach Ayers, who is Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, as his own chief. Ayers had the enthusiastic support of Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, both senior White House advisers. The president was not eager to entertain other options, and for much of last week Ayers acted as his de-facto chief of staff, according to people familiar with the dynamic.
Trump had tasked Ayers with leading a top-to-bottom review of the White House staff and Cabinet with the aim of readying the administration for the partisan and legal battles to come, including Democrats seizing the House majority, the hoped-for conclusion of the Russia investigation and the start of the 2020 reelection campaign, according to people with knowledge of the plans.
But Ayers was careful not to commit to the job, and over the weekend - just after Trump announced to reporters that Kelly would be leaving by the end of the year - Ayers turned it down because he would not agree to Trump's request that he serve for two years, these people said. Ayers, the father of young triplets, had long planned to move to his home state of Georgia at the end of this year, White House officials said.
Trump, who had been telling friends over the weekend that the Ayers was going to take the job, was frustrated that the Georgia native turned it down, aides said. But Trump also insisted to associates that he had an overflow of talented people eager to be his chief of staff.
Ayers faced considerable scrutiny because of his lucrative work as a private consultant, including for former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, and reported making tens of millions of dollars. But one official familiar with Ayers's thinking said his finances were no factor in his decision and noted that he already has made public disclosures related to his job with Pence.
Kushner's prominence in internal deliberations over the post has drawn scrutiny from his critics, who argue that the president's son-in-law was pushing Ayers as a means of prompting Kelly to exit. Kushner played a similar role in the summer of 2017 in bringing on Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director to hasten the departure of Trump's first chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
"There was no Plan B and whoever advised him that Nick Ayers was the right person and would accept the job did the president a grave disservice," said former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, a frequent Kushner critic. "You know you've had to make this change for months and now you have this audition call in the middle of the time the Democrats are gearing up to take you down?"
Chris Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers," a history of White House chiefs of staff, recalled what James Baker - who served as chief of staff to two former presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush - told his successors: "Congratulations! You've got the worst blanking job in government."
"That's true in the best of times, with presidents who understand and value the position, Whipple said, "but these are not the best of times."
Rudy Giuliani, Trump's lead attorney for the Russia investigation, said he does not expect - or want - the president to tap a chief of staff who will be a forceful critic of special counsel Robert Mueller 's probe because the legal team can handle that. Rather, he said, Trump needs "political people, since the president is going into his reelection."
Trump has told associates he is keen to have a more politically savvy and public-facing chief of staff than Kelly - a strategist to guide him through his 2020 campaign, counter the Democrats and devise ways to boost his popularity.
Several contenders fit that bill. Meadows, who leads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is an informal political adviser to Trump and a frequent defender on cable television, as is Bossie, who has experience as a House investigator of Clinton scandals. Bossie and his co-author Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, are scheduled to have lunch with Trump at the White House on Friday, which was planned before the chief of staff vacancy, according to people familiar with the session.
Conway was mentioned Monday as a possibility because of her work as Trump's campaign manager, combative instincts, television presence and rapport with the president. But it was unclear whether she was even interested in being considered for the chief of staff role.
Some Trump allies also were encouraging friends in the administration to consider Perry, pitching him because of his firm grasp of immigration and border policy and experience running a large state and federal agency, according to a person involved in the discussions.
Christie's allies said they do not expect him to be offered the job as long as Kushner remains a top White House staffer, describing their relationship as largely repaired from its past tensions but still not strong enough to enable Christie to fully enter the Trump orbit. Nevertheless, Christie boosters continue to urge Trump to consider him, citing his governing experience and political acumen.
The guessing game has led to intense speculation about Trump's interactions in recent days. For instance, Trump aides mentioned Santorum as a contender after he was spotted with the president at Saturday's Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. They noted Santorum's political skills and populist conservative ideology could make him a contender.
Another dark-horse candidate bowed out before even interviewing for the job. After being mentioned as a "wild card" pick, New York Yankees President Randy Levine announced that he would stick with baseball.
"I have spoken to nobody about the chief of staff job," Levine said in a statement Monday to Fox News. "I have great respect for the president but am very happy being president of the Yankees."
The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.