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article imageTrump plans key staff changes at crucial point in presidency

By Brian KNOWLTON (AFP)     Nov 18, 2018 in Politics

President Donald Trump is planning to make several key staffing changes as he prepares to deal with newly empowered Democrats and with the looming outcome of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"I have three or four or five positions that I'm thinking about," Trump said in an interview with "Fox News Sunday."

"I need flexibility," he said.

Trump did not rule out the possibility that his chief of staff John Kelly might be leaving. "At some point he's going to want to move on."

Democrats picked up at least 36 seats in the House of Representatives in the recent midterm elections, giving them control of the lower chamber.

Trump insisted that it was "historic" that Republicans were able to hold the Senate. But control of the House will allow Democrats to block much Trump-backed legislation, to issue subpoenas and to launch congressional inquiries into Russian involvement, Trump's taxes and finances, and other highly sensitive issues.

- Democratic oversight -

Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, has been widely reported to be a leading contender to replace Kelly -- should Trump decide to do so.

The 36-year-old Ayers has been described as a sharp-elbowed strategist with keen political instincts that might make him a better pick than Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, to navigate the perils of heightened Democratic oversight and the challenges of a Trump re-election campaign in 2020.

Trump also told Fox that "there's a chance" his homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, might be replaced, saying "I like her very much... (but) I would like her to be much tougher on the border."

The president has made the security of the border with Mexico an overarching issue -- one seen to play well with his conservative base.

Another recent Trump staff change -- replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with his chief of staff, Matt Whitaker -- is seen by analysts as a bid to gird the administration for the long-awaited Mueller report on Russian interference.

Democrats bitterly criticized the appointment, noting that Whitaker has spoken in the past about how an attorney general could starve the Mueller team by cutting its budget.

- 'It's up to him' -

But Trump told Fox he would not intervene if Whitaker tried to curtail the investigation.

"It's going to be up to him," he said. "I really believe he's going to do what's right. I would not get involved."

While Trump has attempted to put the best face on Republican losses in the House -- which were worse than the 2006 losses that then-President George W. Bush called a "thumping" -- the Democrats' gains underline the challenges Trump and party will face in 2020.

Republicans lost in big Southern cities like Houston and in three states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- that were key to Trump's 2016 victory. They also lost by a wide margin among suburban women and independents.

Some otherwise supportive Trump voters have said he might be wise, given the recent losses, to moderate his tone, to be more inclusive and less divisive. But he indicated to Fox that he had no plan to do so.

"I think if I was a more modified, more moderate in that sense, I don't think I would have done half of the things that I was able to get completed," he said.

"You have people coming at you so hard that if you don't fight back in a somewhat vigorous way, you're not going to win, and we have to win. This country has to win."

The president added that 2020 will be different in a crucial way from this month's elections -- his name will be on the ballot.

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